A Natick couple subjected to a bizarre harassment and stalking campaign by eBay employees sued the e-commerce giant in federal court on Wednesday, alleging they had been emotionally and psychologically tortured.
Ina and David Steiner drew the ire of top eBay executives, including former CEO Devin Wenig, for publishing an online newsletter called EcommerceBytes that reported on the company and its industry.
After Wenig repeatedly complained to subordinates about the couple’s newsletter, eBay employees threatened the couple online and sent them items including live insects, a bloody pig mask, and a funeral wreath, according to previous criminal charges. The harassment escalated in August 2019 when eBay employees traveled to Natick to stalk the couple in person.
In the new lawsuit, the couple charge that the company and its security team “engaged in a coordinated effort to intimidate, threaten to kill, torture, terrorize, stalk and silence the Steiners, in order to stifle their reporting on eBay.”
“I want everybody who was involved to be held responsible,” Ina Steiner said at a press conference in Boston on Wednesday. “When we were attacked it was just terrifying. … I saw how it affected me, I saw how it affected David, and it is not right.”
eBay offered an apology, as it has in the past, and suggested that it might seek a settlement.
“The misconduct of these former employees was wrong, and we will do what is fair and appropriate to try to address what the Steiners went through,” the company said in a statement. “The events from 2019 should never have happened, and as eBay expressed to the Steiners, we are very sorry for what they endured.”
Wenig did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He has previously denied any knowledge of the harassment campaign. “I did not direct or know anything about the acts that have been charged in Boston,” the former CEO said in a statement last year. “I have spent my career defending press freedoms. What these charges allege is unconscionable.”
The Steiners’ legal team is led by Boston lawyer Rosemary Scapicchio, perhaps best known for representing Sean K. Ellis, who was freed from prison after 22 years when his murder conviction was overturned in 2015.
Scapicchio said eBay’s response to the situation involving the Steiners was not adequate.
“They didn’t hold their leaders responsible for this action; instead they took the coward’s way out. They allowed their leaders to resign,” she said Wednesday, adding that the company’s chief executive left with a $57 million severance package. “What message does that send to corporate America?”
The lawsuit names as defendants the company, a contractor called Progressive F.O.R.C.E. Concepts, former CEO Wenig, and almost a dozen former employees and contractors. Five of the former employees have already pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges and are awaiting sentencing. Two other executives have not been scheduled for trial yet.
The eBay story became public last year when federal prosecutors charged several members of the harassment team with criminal infractions. But the lawsuit offers a view into the Steiners’ lives as the harassment occurred.
The couple said Wednesday they had no idea who had targeted them and feared they would be killed. They installed security cameras around their home and began sleeping in separate bedrooms so that one person could escape if the other was attacked, the lawsuit said.
“It was devastating … that anybody at eBay was involved,” Ina Steiner said. “It is shattering to spend 20 years, my career, reporting on e-commerce and small businesses, to find out who did this to us.”
The Steiners said they still experience trauma from what happened years ago.
“We have eight security cameras around our house now, we have door alarms that sound every time you open the front and back doors, we take circuitous routes anytime we go places,” David Steiner said. “We drive with a video camera on the rear window of our car to make sure no one is tailing us.”
Aaron Pressman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @ampressman. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.