A Dauphin County judge has ordered four defendants to pay millions of dollars to the former owners of H*MAC, ruling that they were defamed in online comments.
Last week, Judge John McNally awarded about $4.7 million in combined damages to former H*MAC co-owner John Traynor and the former controlling partnership of Bartlett, Traynor & London (BTL).
In his opinion, McNally agreed with the plaintiffs that the online news blog, YC News Network, and three individuals, Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou, Travis Wilber and Shawn Cooper, “acted with actual malice” and defamed both Traynor personally and the H*MAC partnership as an entity.
The three were responsible, McNally wrote, for online posts and a YC News blog that claimed a link between H*MAC, a 34,000-square-foot arts and dining venue in Midtown Harrisburg, and criminal allegations that later proved to be false.
“YC News Network, Shawn Cooper, Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou and Travis Wilber are liable for the damage BTL suffered,” McNally wrote in his opinion.
That damage, according to McNally’s opinion, included a loss in business, a devaluation of H*MAC’s real estate and problems booking performers due to a firestorm of bad publicity that followed the false claims.
McNally ordered the defendants to pay nearly $3.2 million in compensatory damages for actual losses incurred by H*MAC and $1.2 million to Traynor for “loss of investment” in H*MAC.
Furthermore, McNally awarded Traynor $250,000 for “damage to his reputation” and ordered each defendant to pay $25,000 in punitive damages.
He also ordered the defendants to remove two stories from YC News Network.
“Let this case be a cautionary tale—you can indeed be held liable for lying and posting false information on social media,” Traynor said. “It’s also an example of what sort of harm that social media can do to a business.”
In July 2018, Philadelphia-based YC News published a story alleging criminal conduct at H*MAC, under the headline, “Harrisburg club under fire after women allege security helped men who drugged and raped them.”
That story followed an allegation by a woman who claimed that H*MAC staff failed to recognize her as a victim of date rape drugs and asked her to exit the bar, leaving her vulnerable to a subsequent sexual assault. Harrisburg police later cleared H*MAC of any responsibility in the case.
Following the woman’s claim, unproven, and ultimately, defamatory allegations against H*MAC were posted on several social media sites, some of which included the YC News story.
That December, Traynor and H*MAC filed a civil lawsuit against more than a dozen people, claiming defamation and tortious interference of business relationships.
Most of the defendants since settled with the plaintiffs, which included retracting their comments and writing letters of apology, according to Traynor. The woman who made the original rape allegation also retracted her claim that implicated H*MAC.
In September 2018, H*MAC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and later sold the sprawling venue for $6 million to a new partnership. Following an extended pandemic-related shutdown, H*MAC recently began to book a full schedule of music and entertainment and is reopening its restaurant this week under a new concept with a menu based on barbecue and soul food dishes.
“The malicious way we were targeted was just awful,” Traynor said. “I’m glad that we can move on and move past it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou, Travis Wilber and Shawn Cooper were employees of YC News. Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou and Shawn Cooper were employees of YC News, but Travis Wilber was not.
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