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Wolfe v. Gooding & Company, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 11, 2017

HERBERT WOLFE, Plaintiff,
v.
GOODING & COMPANY, INC., Defendant.

          OPINION

          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.:

         Plaintiff Herbert Wolfe brings this action for defamation and trade libel against Defendant Gooding & Company, Inc. (“Gooding”), a leading auction house for classic cars. The matter now comes before the Court on Gooding's motion for summary judgment. There was no oral argument. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b). For the following reasons, Gooding's motion is GRANTED as to the defamation claim and DENIED as to the claim for trade libel.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are draw from the amended complaint unless stated otherwise. Plaintiff Herbert Wolfe collects classic race cars. His collection includes a 1948 Alfa Romeo 6C 3000 Competizione.[1] Amended Complaint ¶¶ 20, 22, ECF No. 1, Ex. A. Only three Competiziones were ever produced. As is customary in the class car community, each Competizione became known by its distinct chassis numbers, specifically 920.001, 920.002, and 920.003 (hereafter “001, ” “002, ” and “003”). Plaintiff alleges that he purchased the 001 from car collector Scott Rosen in 2006. Id. ¶ 30. During the summer of 2013, Plaintiff decided to sell the 001 and hired broker Francesco Bonfanti. Declaration of Paul Clark in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, Ex. G., Wolfe Dep. 67:4-8. Mr. Rosen expressed an interest in repurchasing the car for roughly $4 million, and a European buyer was in discussions with Bonfanti for a purchase price of €3.1 million (or $4.1 million). Id. at ¶ 38.

         Defendant Gooding & Company is an auction house for classic cars. In July of 2013, as Plaintiff was gauging interest among buyers for the 001, Gooding sold the Competizione known as 002 at its Pebble Beach auction on behalf of collector David Smith, for a price of $4.8 million. According to Plaintiff, “everybody was waiting for the Gooding Auction” to take place before finalizing an offer for the 001. Wolfe Dep. 216:11-13. Leading up to the auction, however, Gooding distributed printed material that referred to 002 as “the only model extant.” The same language was used to describe the 002 on Gooding's website. ¶¶ 40-43. In light of Gooding's reputation as “one of the leading automobile auction houses . . . [and] as an authority on collectible automobiles, ” these statements caused potential buyers to question the authenticity of Plaintiff's 001. Id. ¶ 58. Those in the classic car community “who heard or read Defendant's defamatory statements necess[arily] understood that the statements about 002 affected 001.” Id. ¶ 71. “By extension, ” argues Plaintiff, Gooding's statements “disparaged Wolfe's standing in the community of class car collectors by impugning his judgment and integrity.” Id. ¶¶ 72-73. Indeed, Mr. Rosen testified that the “serious cloud” over Plaintiff's car as a result of Gooding's catalogue caused him to cease discussions about repurchasing it. Clark Decl., Ex. T, Deposition of Scott Rosen 74:9, 76:11-17.

         Gooding stands by its claim that 002 is the only authentic Competizione in existence. Gooding contends that Wolfe's car contains few, if any, parts from the original 001 and emphasizes that Wolfe has failed to produce documentation of an unbroken chain of ownership tracing the car back to its production and participation in Italy's famed Mille Miglia race in 1948. Expert Patrick Ottis concludes that the chassis, transmission, engine and bodywork of Wolfe's purported 001 are not original Competizione parts. Ottis estimates that 95% of the car's coachwork is new. Clark Decl., Ex. X at 4. Gooding also points to an article by one Dorien Berteletti, a car enthusiast who owned the Wolfe car from 1987 to the early 2000s. Clark Decl. Ex. G, Wolfe Depo. 126:18-20. Berteletti wrote that when he discovered 001 in Ohio, the car consisted of what he believed to be the original Competizione body with a missing frame or chassis. Clark Decl., Ex. S. In the article, Berteletti states that the vehicle was set on a chassis stamped 915249. This appears to contradict Plaintiff's claim that his car-which, of course, features chassis 920.001-is the same car recovered by Berteletti. This fact is crucial, argues Gooding, because the chassis is the part most closely associated with a car's “identity.”

         Plaintiff's expert offer a different account. Jeffrey Murray, founder of Vintage Car Research LLC, asserts that authenticity “is determined by the totality of circumstances, rather than turning on the identity of a given automobile.” See Clark Decl., Ex. U. Murray explains that virtually all classic race cars have undergone substantial repairs and replacements because of accidents and harsh racing conditions. Id. Indeed, all agree that 001 was famously involved in a serious crash in the 1948 Mille Miglia. See Clark Decl., Ex. W. Plaintiff's second witness, Bruce Amster, notes that welding marks on the frame are consistent with the Competizione post war prototype, and that past repairs to the roof of Plaintiff's car are consistent with accounts of the accident during the 1948 Mille Miglia. Id. Plaintiff also offers metallurgic analysis showing that the metal from Plaintiff's car matched other Alfa Romeo samples from the 1930s and 1940s. White Decl., Ex. E. In addition, forensic consultant John Brunetti used lighting techniques and photographic methods showing that the “920001” stamped on the frame of Plaintiff's vehicle is the only chassis number anywhere on the frame. Finally, Plaintiff represents that in 2011, before Gooding's auction of the 002, Plaintiff's vehicle (purportedly the 001) was awarded “Best in Class” at the vaunted Amelia Island Concours.[2]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, the discovery [including, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file] and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335, 340 (3d Cir. 1990). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, and is material if it will affect the outcome of the trial under governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court considers all evidence and inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.2d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Trade Libel

         The elements of trade libel, also known as product disparagement, are: “(1) publication; (2) with malice; (3) of false allegations concerning its property, product or business, and (4) special damages, i.e. pecuniary harm.” Buying For The Home, LLC v. Humble Abode, LLC, 459 F.Supp.2d 310, 326 (D.N.J. 2006); Mayflower Transit, LLC v. Prince, 314 F.Supp.2d 362, 378 (D.N.J. 2004)(citing System Operations Inc. v. Scientific Games Develop. Corp., 555 F.2d 1131, 1140 (3d Cir. 1977)). Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact exist and that Gooding is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         i. Was Gooding's statement “of and concerning” Plaintiff's car?

         Gooding disputes that the allegedly libelous statement was “of and concerning” Plaintiff's vehicle. Its argument is straightforward: the Pebble Beach catalogue stated that the 002 was the “only extant example” of the Competizione, but it did not mention or refer to Plaintiff's vehicle. The Court does not agree. While there does not appear to be a New Jersey case directly on this point, case law establishes that a libelous statement need not explicitly refer to a plaintiff's product, “so long as it was understood to refer to it by at least one third party.” Taj Mahal Travel, Inc. v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 164 F.3d 186 (3d Cir. 1998). “[I]f the applicability of the defamatory matter to the plaintiff depends upon extrinsic circumstances, it must appear that some person who saw or read it was familiar with ...


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