A fight among competing beer distributors continues in Madison County Circuit Court.
Robert “Chick” Fritz In. filed the lawsuit on Oct. 10 against Donnewald Distributing Co., Koerner Distributor Inc. and Jeff Jones alleging defamation.
According to the complaint, Chick Fritz, Donnewald and Koerner are all beer distributors in southern Illinois, and on April 9, Koerner employee Jones entered the Shop ‘N Save in Jerseyville and took pictures of a display selling Uinta Brewing Co.’s Hop Nosh IPA, a product distributed by Donnewald, at a reduced price. The lawsuit states Jones then emailed the photo to Uinta Brewing with a false email address, alleging to be Anne Fritz for Chick Fritz, and informed them that Donnewald was delivering expired beer to Shop ‘N Save. The plaintiff says Jones knew the email would cause damage to Koerner’s reputation for disparaging Donnewald, and that is why he pretended to be a representative of Chick Fritz, putting the company in a false light.
Then on April 11, Uinta Brewing forwarded the email to Donnewald to find out if the allegations were true, and Donnewald began disparaging Chick Fritz to its customers, potential customers and craft brewers and the public, telling people not to work with the company, saying it had “no integrity,” and calling its sales representatives “liars," the lawsuit says.
The email stated, “Check out what your supposed partners are doing to your brand. This is chain augmented pricing across their geography. Pallet drops of out of code beer at every shop n save. Donnewald is not a craft distributor and is destroying your brand equity to a point where it will be unrecoverable. Sorry for the bad news.”
As a result, the complaint states, the Edwardsville Shop ‘N Save took Chick Fritz products off display and its store managers told Chick Fritz representatives that they worked for a “[bad] company.” Chick Fritz says it approached Shop ‘N Save upper management and was able to obtain a copy of the email and security footage showing Jones taking the photo, the suit states.
Jones filed a motion to dismiss on Dec. 10, claiming the content of the email attributable to Jones “is not alleged in any way to be false.
Koerner also filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint on Jan. 6, claiming the plaintiff cannot sustain an action for false light.
“The tort of false light invasion of privacy does not protect a party’s reputation; it protects an individual’s personal privacy interest to be free from false publicity,” the motion states. “Corporations do not have such a privacy interest.”
Furthermore, Koerner claims the plaintiff can’t prove false light under the facts pleaded.
“Plaintiff, under the first element, will be unable to prove that Koerner showed ‘Chick’ Fritz in false light, because ‘Chick’ Fritz is unable to prove actual falsity, publicity and causation by Koerner,” the motion states.
Koerner claims it was Donnewald that began disparaging Chick Fritz, not Koerner, meaning the defendant did not cause the plaintiff to be in false light.
“Here, no reasonable person (or a beer retailer) would be seriously offended and aggrieved by a beer distributor saying a competitor beer distributor was distributing out-of-date beer,” the motion states.
Donnewald answered the complaint denying the allegations against it and alleging 11 affirmative defenses against the plaintiff.
It claims the alleged statements were not defamatory because they consisted of pure opinion and do not relate to the commission of criminal offense.
It also argues that the plaintiff’s alleged conduct was privileged or justified as lawful competition.
Furthermore, Donnewald claims any alleged defamatory statements made about the plaintiff are true and consist of fair comment.
“Defendant Donnewald cannot be held vicariously liable for any alleged statements of its employees in that any such statements were made in excess of authority and outside the scope of employment of such employees,” its affirmative defenses stated.
However, Donnewald argued that if it is found liable, it is entitled to contribution for a percentage of that sum from Chick Fritz, Koerner and Jones.
Chick Fritz answered Donnewald’s affirmative defenses on Jan. 5.
“While ordinarily defamation can be based upon recklessness or negligence, where a cause of action for defamation is ‘solely predicated on specific intent,’ a claim for contribution under the Joint Tort Feasor Contribution Act will fail,” Chick Fritz wrote.
Koerner Distributor answered Donnewald’s affirmative defenses on Jan. 9, denying that Donnewald is entitled to contribution from Koerner under the Illinois Joint Tort Feasor Contribution Act.
Jones filed a motion to dismiss Donnewald’s claims on Jan. 8 arguing that Donnewald’s causes of action have alleged “intentional acts committed by Donnewald.” He claims the intentional acts are not entitled to contribution under the Illinois Joint Tort Feasor Contribution Act.
“Such causes of actions are solely predicated upon specific intent and therefore a claim for contribution under the Joint Tort Feasor Contribution Act must fail,” the motion states.
Koerner Distributor joined the motion to dismiss on Jan. 21, arguing that the complaint is “fatally flawed.”
Chick Fritz seeks more than $50,000 in damages plus punitive damages and costs of the suit.
Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder scheduled a motion hearing for March 6 at 9 a.m.
Ryan J. Mahoney of Cates Mahoney LLC in Swansea represents Chick Fritz.
Kenneth L. Halvachs, Ronald J. Abernathy Jr. and Kevin T. Dawson of Halvachs & Abernathy LLC in Belleville represents Donnewald.
Todd W. Sivia and Paul A. Marks of Sivia Business & Legal Services, P.C., in Edwardsville represents Koerner Distributor.
Samuel A. Mormino of Mormino Velloff & Snider in Alton represents Jones.
Madison County Circuit Court case number 14-L-1384