The Natick couple stalked and harassed in 2019 over their news reporting about eBay filed a revised lawsuit against the company, its former chief executive, and others, alleging they were emotionally tortured and still suffering the effects more than three years later.
The 123-page filing in federal court in Boston from Ina and David Steiner updated their 2021 lawsuit with new evidence and came after five former eBay workers who pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the case were sentenced last year. The filing comes just days after eBay for the first time acknowledged that it is under criminal investigation in the case and has set aside $64 million to cover potential civil and criminal penalties.
The 2019 scheme “to intimidate, threaten, torture, terrorize, stalk, and silence the Steiners was successful and harmful,’’ the Steiners’ revised lawsuit stated. “The unrelenting stream of threats to kill, disturbing deliveries, as well as the physical surveillance caused the Steiners to suffer from significant and continuing emotional distress.’’
The bizarre plot was ignited by complaints from eBay’s top management about the Steiners’ coverage of the company and included sending the couple threatening Twitter messages, live spiders, and a funeral wreath, as well as following them around town and trying to install a tracking device on their car in August 2019. Jim Baugh, eBay’s former head of security who orchestrated the plot and traveled to Natick to surveil the couple, received the stiffest sentence of nearly five years in prison.
The revised lawsuit included a bevy of evidence that emerged during the sentencings, including an eBay PowerPoint presentation to the US attorney’s office conceding that actions of its former employees were “clearly criminal’’ and that former chief executive Devin Wenig’s “tone was improper and unacceptable.’’ The presentation also said the company did not find evidence that Wenig “directed or knew that criminal acts would occur.’’
Baugh, during his sentencing, admitted to concocting the plot, saying he was a former covert operative for the CIA and FBI, where he learned to lie about his work. Baugh apologized for his actions and said he was “completely out of control’’ due to alcohol abuse.
The Steiners attended and spoke at all of the sentencing hearings last year, explaining that they remained fearful and isolated since the abuse. “There is a sadness in our lives, and a sense of safety we used to take for granted is gone,’’ Ina Steiner said at an October hearing.
“That’s what this is really about — the Steiners’ suffering,’’ Rosemary Scapicchio, their attorney, said in an interview.
The couple failed to reach an agreement with eBay in settlement talks held last year. The company is anticipating it may settle or face damages, however. In its annual 10-K report filed last week, eBay noted that it was under criminal investigation for the Natick incident and was in talks with the US attorney’s office in Boston to settle the matter.
US District Judge Douglas Woodlock, who was assigned the original lawsuit, in January allowed the Steiners to file a revised lawsuit incorporating the new evidence. He also handed the case over to US District Judge Patti Saris, who sentenced Baugh and some of the other participants.
The revised lawsuit added Wendy Jones, eBay’s former senior vice president of operations and Baugh’s direct supervisor, as a defendant. Jones asked Baugh to deal with complaints about the Steiners’ website and comments on the site, according to the lawsuit, and her failure to properly oversee Baugh was a “proximate cause’’ of the harassment.
The revised lawsuit also dropped the charge that the plot amounted to a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law aimed at organized crime, while adding several charges of negligence, including that eBay was negligent in hiring, training, and supervising Baugh and the former employees who carried out the scheme.
The lawsuit cited Baugh’s background as part of the negligence charges. “eBay, through its negligent hiring practices, sought out employees with the unique experience and skills necessary to engage in the type of behavior used during the course of the conspiracy,’’ the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, attorneys fees, and other costs.
EBay and the US attorney’s office in Boston did not respond to a request for comment.
Wenig’s lawyers, Martin Weinberg and Abbe Lowell, said their client was not responsible for what happened to the Steiners. “Wenig had no knowledge of what took place and had he known, he would have immediately stepped in to stop it,’’ Weinberg said in a statement to the Globe.
Jones, who left eBay in 2020 and now sits on the board of directors of Prudential Financial, could not be reached for comment.