(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — As the state faces a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost today filed a lawsuit against an individual from northeast Ohio and his co-conspirators for hoarding N95 respirator masks and selling them online for nearly 18 times the retail price.
Mario F. Salwan, of Chagrin Falls, and others operated an online store on eBay under the now-defunct user name “Donkey476.” Seeing an opportunity to profit from the COVID-19 driven increase in demand for essential products such as N95 masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, the group began to accelerate – both in speed and volume – its acquisition of such products.
“There’s another word for donkey that immediately comes to mind when thinking about these folks,” Yost said. “We will continue to take action against anyone else in this state price gouging during this pandemic.”
The group ramped up operations during March and acquired more than 1,200 N95 masks. Its bulk purchases set the stage for them to reap exorbitant profits from the ongoing public health crisis, and added to the growing shortage of N95 masks available in the marketplace for purchase by both Ohioans with health concerns and health-care workers.
Beginning on March 28, Donkey476 sold packages of 10 N95 masks to 15 purchasers at prices ranging from $360 to $375 – with the prices averaging $363.43, or $36.34 per mask. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the average retail price was $2.05 per mask.
According to the lawsuit, an emergency room nurse whose husband is an emergency room physician came across Donkey476’s listing for N95 masks on eBay. She reached out to Salwan to urge him to reconsider his exorbitant prices for equipment that health-care workers desperately need of because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his response, Salwan indicated not only his keen awareness of the crisis but also his callous indifference to it: “You and your husband should work for free during this crisis, you are greedy!”
The Valentine Act, Ohio’s antitrust law, gives the attorney general’s office broad powers to protect the public and foster fair and honest interstate and intrastate competition by instituting actions against those who conspire to restrain trade and commerce or monopolize markets in Ohio. The hoarding of an item and the related increase in prices of that item constitute an unreasonable and unlawful restraint of trade, a violation of the Valentine Act.
The state also believes Donkey476 committed unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act by offering goods for sale at prices substantially increased because of an increased demand for the products caused by this national emergency.
Yost seeks injunctive and other equitable relief – including but not limited to a temporary restraining order – and preliminary and permanent injunctions as well as statutory civil forfeiture. The state is also asking the court make Donkey476 surrender all of its N95 masks to the state in exchange for reasonable compensation.