Food Writer Settles $4 Million Lawsuit

Nov 112010
 

It started with a limo ride to an event he was covering...

You have to laugh. The whole idea that any food writer might have $4 million dollars…well, you know.

But the lawsuit wasn’t very funny at all to John Mitzewich, except at first, when he thought it was a joke, like the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George steal a limo.

Mitzewich writes for About.com as the American Food expert. The New York Times owns About.com, a fact that gives Mitzewich excellent press credentials.

A few years ago, Mitzewich accepted an invite to  attend Toast to the Coast, a food and wine event in Atlantic City. He took a red-eye to Philadelphia, where a limo driver was  supposed to pick him up and drive him to the event. Except when he arrived, he couldn’t find a guy in a uniform holding up a card with his name on it. Instead, Mitzewich found was a guy holding up a card with the name of the managing editor of Wine Enthusiast.

John Mitzewich

Mitzewich knew that he was the only invitee flying into Philadelphia. Everyone else, including the Wine Enthusiast editor, was flying into New York. So he took the limo, and off they went. Mitzewich wrote a nice story about the event, and everyone seemed happy.

Mitzewich, also a video blogger on You Tube and on his own blog, Food Wishes, filmed the limo driver and the limo with a good-natured voiceover, and put the video on his blog. (Don’t look for it because it’s no longer there.)

Soon afterwards, Mitzewich received a letter from the limo company, alleging he stole the limo and asking him to pay $385 for the ride, plus $4 million for defamation of character, interference with the limo contract, and invasion of privacy. He took down the video.

Two years later, after hiring an attorney, Mitzewich settled. He had told the limo company, over and over, that he did nothing wrong, and they weren’t ever going to get a dime. And they didn’t. So here’s what they agreed to: Mitzewich will run an ad for the limo company on his blog for six months. So far, the limo company has not sent the materials.

  35 Responses to “Food Writer Settles $4 Million Lawsuit”

  1. Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

  2. I love this story. Who hasn’t wanted to do that. But this story is so sad for so many reasons. First, it is the Limo’s driver’s responsibility to be sure they have the right person. I believe there is no law that says you cannot walk up to one of these guys and say “Let’s Go” and just leave. If they do not check the identity, that is their fault. This would be as stupid as a rental car company handing the keys to a car to someone because they said they were the person named on the reservation. They check!

    Secondly, if the videos he shot were “out in public”, then he can display anything he wants as long as he has not modified them to tell a lie. In defamation of character, truth is a rock solid defense. And if the car drives around on public streets, then anything shot in the public can be displayed on a website. If they object to say, their logo showing on the video, then they should remove the logo from the side of the car! If I can film it on the streets, and as long as I am not charging for admission, too bad! And seriously, invasion of who’s privacy? The driver obviously knew he was being filmed, and the car is on pubic streets.

    And if he did indeed interfered with a contract, then they can sue for the cost of the contract, not $4 Million. Did the Limo company imply that this other person DID show up after all?

    And what about the Limo that did not show up. Can he now sue them for “interference with the limo contract” as well? Maybe they can be an accessory to the case!

    Talk about an abusive law suit. What a waste of time.

  3. Such silliness. I met John at IFBC and he seemed to be about the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. Why these boneheads thought they should try to extract $4M out of him, I can’t imagine.

  4. While I agree that the lawsuit seems excessive, Mitzewich is certainly culpable at some level. He knowingly accepted a ride that wasn’t intended for him. How hard would it have been to take a cab (or God forbid, public transit or Supershuttle)? If the limo is for the editor of Wine Spectator and you’re not the editor of Wine Spector, find your own ride. I haven’t seen the video, but filming the limo driver in a closed, hired car (not public space, nor is it a breaking news event) and releasing it publicly without a signed waiver and/or company consent isn’t such a good idea. Such issues are covered in basic newswriting courses in every j-school in the country…..if he had conducted himself within professional standards, he wouldn’t have been the recipient of a lawsuit. Or is he not a journalist after all, despite his “excellent press credentials”….

    • Wow, interesting points, Celeste. I don’t want to defend the guy, but here are the facts: It would be a 1-hour ride in a cab. Almost $200. Harrah’s said they would send a limo to pick him up. He knew he was the only media person arriving on that red eye, and the editor was coming from New York. (Don’t ask me how he knew, though.)

      I saw the video. He filmed himself saying yes, when the driver said the other guy’s name. He filmed the driver taking him to the limo. He filmed the outside of the limo and a quick pan of the inside. The company felt it looked bad, and that was the problem.

      But yes, it brings up the question of releases and permissions. As for j-school, I don’t think Mitzewich has been. He has excellent credentials as a chef, and now writes and makes videos for a living.

    • OK, he accepted someone else’s ride. Both he AND the company (via their driver) are equally responsible here for not checking ID’s.

      And I happen to see the video. If anything, he made the Limo company look good. The driver was courteous and prompt, the service shown was excellent, the car was beautiful and clean, and the few seconds shot inside the car showed a fancy interior, clean, with a well stocked supply of beverages and snacks. Everything was shot in a public space, including the car, except for the inside. As for the inside being a “non-public” space, you can see pictures of the inside of a limo by typing “inside limo” into Google images (470,000 results), and nothing shot inside the car made anyone look bad at all. The driver was NOT visible in the video, only the back area of the car. Also, no company logo was visible inside the car, so this could have been shot anywhere.

      Nothing in the film made anyone look bad except for the driver, who didn’t ask for ID. If I had not known the story, it looked like more of a commercial for the limo company, as it looked good. Since you speak of “j-school” then you know as well as anyone that truth is a defense, and the libel or slander must cause one to be shunned or avoided, or hurt in their business. I do not think this video could be shown to do either! This was a nuisance suit plan and simple, because the limo company felt slighted, and was “going to show him.” Personally, I find the suit disgusting! To the limo company: Send him a bill for the ride and fees, and get over yourself!

      Gee, maybe John should put up that part of the video for the advertisement they wanted!

  5. The limo company went after him because of the deep pockets of the companies that own his content.

  6. Hello this is the accused, John Mitzewich!
    Sorry, I’m out in business and only have the phone so I will respond with more later. Just want to be clear NO ONE was decieved at any point. The video is edited to look that way as an inside “constanza” joke with Tim and the other reporters. That’s why I never posted on Youtube.

    I had the driver walk over to me to get that shot. He knew the ride must be mine before he invited me along. I knew i was the only writer coming from CA, and that all the other reporters, including Tim M were coming from NY the next day. No theft occured, or was attempted at any time. The limo company obviously never even interviewed the driver or they would have known all this. More later!

    Thanks!!

  7. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kalofagas Greek Food, Jennifer Heigl, Chef John, Barbara Kiebel, Kate Blood and others. Kate Blood said: RT @diannej: Food Writer Settles $4 Million Lawsuit. New post @ http://bit.ly/aKd7ZT [...]

  8. Oh Chef John. I heart you, don’t change a thing! Sometimes life is an improv comedy show, not a well scripted planned out and rehearsed play. People need to lighten up, and most of all stop being so lawsuit happy and greedy. xo

  9. Okay, I’m home on a real keyboard!

    Yes, while I didn’t really steal anything (nor would I ever consider it), this is a great excuse to discuss releases and the dangers of filming in public. I didn’t have him sign anything, but I made sure before filming that the driver knew who I was, and knew I was going to edit the footage into a funny video montage as part of my trip recap.

    A few other comments: I didn’t know Tim M personally when I arrived. I only knew all the other writers on the press list were coming in a limo from NYC the next day. So, when I saw that his name was given to the limo company in error, I put 2 and 2 together and assumed (correctly) I would be meeting him the next day. Luckily, he was, as I had hoped, a big Seinfeld fan!

    Also, to those of you feeling bad for me that I had to hire a lawyer to fight such a ridiculous case, rest easy. I didn’t spend anything! A friend of my blog, and prince of a man, Nils, helped me pro bono, and read over all the letters I sent to the limo co. and court. He is the real hero of the story and thanks to him everything worked out.

    My favorite part of the suit was the part where the limo company said they were forced to send a limo back to the airport hours later to save a stranded Tim M. Really? You mean the guy that was in NY that day. :-)

    Bottom line: Be Careful!!!!

  10. Celeste, hopefully now you know I didn’t mislead the driver or take a ride I knew wasn’t mine. Also, journalism had nothing to do with this. I wasn’t filming as a journalist. I wasn’t working at the time. This video was done as a joke between friends, posted on my personal blog, and not part of any official coverage. I have no idea how the limo company even found it since their name was never used – anywhere, even now. Had they simply asked the driver, or the hotel PR dept. what had happened, they would have never sued. Instead, they did no research, and IMO were simply hoping I was some rich celeb foodie (i wish) who would pay to save the embarrassment.

    • Thanks for clarifying–as I said in my initial post, I didn’t see the video. But your response raises an interesting point: you claim you “weren’t working at the time”. If you’re entirely freelance, this is true. But if you’re a salaried employee traveling for work, it’s a different matter. Anyway, kudos to you for following up with the matter and discussing it in a forum like this one.

      • I must say that I didn’t understand John’s comment. He was flying to Philadelphia to work, and was being picked up because he was covering the show. John, if you’re reading this, perhaps you can clarify.

        True, though, he was not a salaried employee, but self-employed.

  11. What a great story! And their settlement terms? He must have had one helluva lawyer to think up something that creative.

  12. John – am I missing something here? ARE you the Editor of Wine Enthusiast? Is your name really whatever was on the sign and you write under an assumed name?And I am confused by the comment that you ACCEPTED a ride meant for someone else. Did the driver come over and offer the ride to you? If so, you are in the clear. But, if you misrepresented your credentials and yourself, then …. and the cost of a taxi ride is no excuse. Seems like a joke where only you recognized the punch line. Doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, just that you need to know your audience a bit better.

    Seinfeld – well, I didn’t watch that show so much, so I can’t really say if this was just a Seinfeldesque prank. And I don’t think Press Credentials enter into this much here. I could be the King of Spain and it wouldn’t look any better for me if made off with Queen Elizabeth’s coach – even if I knew she was grouse hunting that day.

    Good post again Dianne. You really make us think and take a stand, don’t you?? And I think I am standing more close to Celeste than I am to the rest of the bus line.
    Karen

    • I was the one who brought up the cost of the taxi ride, not John. It was clear that the limo was supposed to be for him. Apparently the limo driver was in on the joke, according to John. The owner of the company, not so much.

  13. Karen, yes, you are missing something major!!

    Not sure if you read the above comments I left, but I didn’t accept a ride intended for someone else!! The ride was intended for me, the limo was sent for me, and I was the rightful rider!! Tim’s name on the sign was a clerical error, and once the driver realized I was the rightful (and obvious) rider he welcomed me along. I didn’t trick the driver waiting for another.

    So to answer your question, “did the driver come over and offer the ride to you? ” Yes, once I listed my flight number, the host who ordered the ride, and the event I was covering, and he realized he simply had the wrong name, he grabbed my bags and away we went!

    Not sure where everyone is getting the idea that I impersonated someone to get this ride. Not the case. There was no one else to pick up.

    • Hi John-
      Thanks for the clarification – that changes the entire story, doesn’t it? Just goes to show that:
      1. I should read the article more closely ( I will go back and re-read to see where I missed all the info about how you actually got the ride and the fact that it was a mutual decision to have some fun)
      2 I should click all the links to get the rest of the story
      3. I shouldn’t jump to what is a seemingly natural conclusion.
      Enough on my shortcomings here. This is a post about you and your exciting adventures into the legal realm and I wish there were more to read! And I would love to have seen the film.
      Karen

  14. Dianne, Yes! the owners of the company were the only ones who didn’t know what really happened, and obviously didn’t bother to find out — they just saw a chance at some easy money. Little did they know! ;-)

  15. Hi, Dianne… that’s a really ‘open-eyed’ topic. It shows there’s alway some traps out there lurking at innocent people, no matter how hard we tried to avoid such thing. Lucky for John, he has friends to counter the lawsuit!

    To John, glad all this over for you, John…lots of hugs! I read all the way down this site to find out what’s the commotion about while I’m out traveling for months!

    @ Nate…I agreed with you :-)

  16. I’m glad this worked out for John, but I think its the paragraph that states:

    ***Mitzewich knew that he was the only invitee flying into Philadelphia. Everyone else, including the Wine Enthusiast editor, was flying into New York. So he took the limo, and off they went. Mitzewich wrote a nice story about the event, and everyone seemed happy.***

    I had a bit of trouble realizing, as others here have, that this was a ‘clerical error’ and that John wasn’t just taking someone else’s limo. Sorry to say Diane, but I think John told the story a bit better with more details, and wherever you got the story from left out some pertinent details about the driver being in on this joke.

    Do you have a source to where you found out that the suit settled? Just asking, because it seems many of us have an issue with the driver not asking for ID.

    However, this is good stuff…the whole idea about filming in public and permissions and what you learn in ‘j-school’ is great to review.

    In this day and age though, its fair to say that most bloggers and video makers haven’t gone to journalism school. Anyone with access to the internet and a video camera can call themselves a writer and actually make money at it, so the finer details of the profession may go ignored and ignorance be claimed, though not hold water in the eyes of the law.

    • That’s funny, Rozenjoze. My source was John. Certainly the company did not admit to a clerical error. From their standpoint, John stole the limo.

      You are absolutely right that anyone with a video camera can make a video and put it on the Internet. I guess it is up to those who do so to get educated about permissions.

  17. ARE YOU F’ING KIDDING ME? A limo company sued John for $4m because he took their limo? This world makes me very sad sometimes. That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

  18. Sorry, Dianne, I was confused about what actually happened, as well. Thanks, John, for filling us in on all the details…interesting story! Glad to hear it all turned out okay.

  19. About five years ago I was in a parking lot and I rolled into a cab. I mean I was going less than five miles an hour. The cab driver took all my info – but it was dumb. First, because I didn’t do any damage. Second, because there were little scrapes and dings all the way around this cab. Probably dozens of them.

    Imagine my surprise when a week later I got a letter demanding 400-something dollars for the “damages.” I sent ‘em a letter back telling them to go pound sand and that there were dings and scrapes all over the cab before I ever encountered it. I never heard from them again. I guess they send these letters out just to see if anyone is gullible enough to actually pay.

  20. Ces posts sont follement séduisants

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