A North Texas wedding photographer has been awarded a $1.08 million defamation verdict against a married couple whom the jury found posted false statements in a social media campaign after being unhappy about a surprise fee.
A Dallas County jury found Friday that social media posts made by Neely and Andrew Moldovan against photographer Andrea Polito amounted to defamation.
Polito, according to a lawsuit filed in March 2015, said the couple engaged in a "smear campaign," used negative publicity to "destroy" her business and even bragged online "they were, 'pretty sure her business is done.'"
The Moldovans were upset over a required $125 fee for a cover for their wedding album -- an item they said was not on their contract and should have been included in the cost of their wedding album.
In an interview with NBC 5 in January 2015, the Moldovans said that Polito's office manager told them unless they paid the fee for a cover their photo album would be forfeited. In the 2015 interview with NBC 5, Moldovan argued, "An album comes with a cover. It’s a component of an album. It’s a book.”
In January 2015, Polito didn't want to go on camera, but said she'd "be more than happy to address any inquiries in writing via email." In an email to NBC 5 at that time, Polito said, “While they have already paid for the cost of the album, they did not pay for the cost of the cover, which is an a la carte item due to the variation of covers available." Polito added that her order form “clearly states that the cover is not included in the wedding package and is an additional charge.”
After NBC 5's story aired, both Polito and the Moldovans were bombarded with criticism on social media. The Moldovans said in 2015 some of the social media comments, or "likes," attributed to them were actually coming from fake profiles.
“Neither of us ever hoped her business is ruined, nor do we even want that,” Andrew Moldovan said in 2015. “We came to NBC just to get our photos and album. Nothing more.”
The couple did admit in 2015, however, to posting messages on Instagram before and after the interview that said, “Excited to be on NBC” and “justice is served.”
On Friday, more than two years after the story ran, a Dallas County jury found the couple's social media posts were done out of malice and that Polito followed the terms of her contract with the newlyweds.
Jurors found the Moldovans liable for defamation, disparagement, and civil conspiracy, and awarded punitive damages.
"Ms. Polito hopes this verdict will reinforce her attempts to repair her reputation, while also sending a message that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences," said Dave Wishnew, Polito's lawyer. "Texas has one of the strongest laws in the nation to protect individuals who air legitimate grievances and opinions. But those protections don't extend to a concerted campaign designed to defame and destroy someone's hard-earned business."
Following the decision, Polito told The Dallas Morning News she's determined to rebuild her company.
"I’m emotionally exhausted. This has been a very long battle," she said. "Last Friday when the verdict was read I felt a little bit relieved, but most importantly I feel my reputation was restored to myself. What’s been so hard the past couple of years has been feeling so ashamed of this story."
She told DallasNews.com she hopes that others who may be in a similar situation take away that they have to "fight for what's right and fight for your passion."
"No one is safe from this," she said. "I wasn’t a new business, I was an established business with a reputation that was well-respected in the Dallas community."
The Moldovans issued the following statement Tuesday night:
“We are stunned. We did what consumer advocates say to do: When you are wronged, you fight back.
We were unhappy with a situation, so we complained like anyone would. This court decision tells consumers not to speak up for fear of fat legal bills and painful judgements.
If this is the cost of standing up for what's right, we should have given in to start with. But we hope to prevail in the end.
We'd love nothing more than to put this behind us and focus on raising our five month old child.”