Luke Combs apologized Wednesday after he accidentally sued one of his fans in federal court and won a $250,000 judgment against her, saying she had been caught up in a lawsuit aimed at “illegal businesses” and that she was “never supposed to be involved.”
The apology came a day after news broke that lawyers representing the country star had sued a woman named Nicol Harness for selling Combs-themed mugs on Amazon. Harness, who suffers from congestive heart failure, sold only 18 tumblers for a total of $380 but was ordered to pay a whopping $250,000 in damages for infringing Combs’ intellectual property — all before she ever realized she had been sued.
In an Instagram post on Wednesday, Combs said he had just learned about the situation and that it “makes me absolutely sick to my stomach.” He said he had already contacted Harness directly and apologized for the incident.
“I spent the last two hours trying to make this right and figure out what’s going on, because I was completely and utterly unaware of this,” Combs said in the video. “We do have a company that goes after folks only, supposedly large corporations operating internationally that make millions and millions of dollars making counterfeit tee shirts, things of that nature, running illegal businesses. Apparently, this woman, Nicol, has somehow gotten wrapped into that.”
The lawsuit against Harness, filed in June in Illinois federal court, accused more than 200 online entities of selling unauthorized Combs merchandise on the internet. It included screenshots of unauthorized t-shirts sold on Amazon that directly copied real apparel the country star sold on his own site.
“This action has been filed … to combat online counterfeiters who trade upon the reputation and goodwill of the American artist Luke Combs,” his lawyers wrote. “The aggregated effect of the mass counterfeiting that is taking place has overwhelmed the plaintiff and his ability to police his rights against the hundreds of anonymous defendants which are selling illegal counterfeits at prices.”
The case highlights a common legal tactic used by big brands like Nike and Ray-Ban to fight fake products on the internet. Filed against huge lists of URLs, such actions enable brands to shut down pirate sellers en masse, win court orders to freeze their assets, and continue to kill new listings if they pop up. They usually result in large “default judgments” against many defendants who never even saw the lawsuit, ordering them to pay large sums in damages.
Though they’re more often employed by retail brands, artists and bands have increasingly turned to such lawsuits to combat counterfeit merch. Nirvana sued nearly 200 sites for selling fake gear in early 2022; a few months later, the late rapper XXXTentacion’s company filed a similar case; in January, Harry Styles filed one.
Such lawsuits are effective at combating a difficult problem, but they’re also increasingly controversial. In a study released last month, professor Eric Goldman of Santa Clara University’s School of Law called the mass-defendant counterfeiting cases “abusive,” saying they allow rightsholders to bypass “basic procedural safeguards” like making sure each defendant is properly served with notice of the lawsuit.
Harness says that’s what happened to her. As reported by Tampa’s local NBC outlet WFLA, she says she had no idea she had been sued until she returned from a hospital visit and saw her Amazon account had been frozen. Harness says she later found an email from Combs’ lawyers, sent to an address she rarely uses and stuck in her spam folder, notifying her of the lawsuit. By the time she was fully up to speed, she says the case had been closed and a judge had granted a default judgment ordering her to pay Combs $250,000.
Though the lawsuit was filed directly in his name, Combs’ Instagram post on Wednesday suggests that it was handled entirely by outside attorneys or other entities empowered to enforce his rights. The attorney who filed the case, Keith A. Vogt, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Combs’ manager Chris Kappy declined to comment on how the case came to be filed, but confirmed that Combs had absolved Harness of any legal debt. And in his Instagram post on Wednesday, Combs said he was committed to making things right.
Since a total of $5,500 was still frozen in her Amazon account, he said he was “going to double that, send her $11,000 today, just so she doesn’t have anything to worry about.” Combs also said that he was going to make his own tumblers to sell in his official online merchandise store and that money from sales of those tumblers will also go to Harness to help with her medical bills.
“This is not something I would ever do,” Combs said. “This is not the kind of person I am, greedy in any way, shape or form. Money is the last thing on my mind, I promise you guys that. I invited Nicol and her family out to a show this year so I can give her a hug and say sorry in person.”