TARPON SPRINGS — A customer says he's been ripped off.
A merchant says his reputation has been besmirched.
The messy dispute has been playing out on the side of one of Pinellas County's busiest roads.
Bill Stathopoulos, owner of A&B Audio in Tarpon Springs, says in a civil lawsuit that customer Joseph Gonzalez has done irreparable harm to his car accessory business by hiring people to hold defamatory signs outside the business at 39620 U.S. 19.
The signs, which read "A&B Audio Ripped Me Off, Don't Be Next," turned away potential customers for weeks beginning in early November, Stathopoulos said in an interview this week.
"This was peak business season, Christmastime," Stathopoulos said. "People are pulling into my shopping center, turning around and leaving."
Stathopoulos, 35, said he estimates he lost $10,000 to $15,000 in business since the signs started appearing. He filed the suit in November in Pinellas County.
Gonzalez, 49, a self-employed artist who said he was lead artist at Walt Disney World for 18 years, said he's the one who's out thousands of dollars.
"They did $5,000 worth of work and $3,000 worth of damage," he said.
Gonzalez, of Holiday, said he took his 2004 Nissan 350Z to A&B Audio about four months ago to have a new stereo installed. When he got there, Gonzalez said, employees pointed out a more expensive stereo than the one he had brought in. He agreed to buy it from A&B Audio, he said.
Gonzalez said he was first dismayed when he went to pick up the car and saw that employees had installed the display model.
Next, Gonzalez said, the company's technicians installed a radar detector in the wrong place and left drill holes when they removed it.
Gonzalez and Stathopoulos both said that Gonzalez paid his bill for the radar detector and stereo, then asked the company to do some more work on the car and install carpeting in his truck.
Said Stathopoulos: "He contracted us for a second line of work, so he must have been happy."
Said Gonzalez: "I just thought everything was going to work out, but it didn't. I just wanted it to all go away."
That's when things started to get out of hand.
Stathopoulos accuses Gonzalez of becoming "belligerent" and taking his car off the lot without paying $434 he owed.
Gonzalez said he asked Stathopoulos to fix the damages, but was rebuffed and cursed at.
That's when Gonzalez decided he wanted to warn other customers, he said. Gonzalez said he has sent "four or five" friends with the signs, who stood on public property in front of the business.
Tarpon police were called out several times, an incident report shows.
"On each occasion, the picketers are on public property and are following all laws," says one report from Dec. 15.
On Dec. 18, Stathopoulos and Gonzalez met at the Police Department to try to settle the dispute, but weren't able to see eye-to-eye, both parties agree.
In the suit, Stathopoulos alleges Gonzalez's actions are defamatory and are harming his business. He is also suing for breach of contract for the outstanding bill.
Stathopoulos said he has tried on multiple occasions to reason with Gonzalez and offered to fix anything he wasn't satisfied with. When that didn't work, he turned to an attorney, he said.
Gonzalez said he's out thousands of dollars in damages, including holes that weren't repaired and a ripped door panel.
He said he hasn't had anyone out on U.S. 19 holding signs lately, but only because he has been too busy. He plans to start his protest again soon, he said.
In front of about 75,000 cars that zoom by each day.
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.