Thursday, May 7, 2015

Nuisance Suits

No DirecTV -- the horror!
An angry New Jersey woman -- with the help of wonderful, high-minded, noble lawyers -- has filed a $5 million class-action suit against United Airlines.  

It concerns the crucial issue of in-flight DirecTV and wi-fi access.

The woman paid $7.99 for such access on a four-hour flight from Puerto Rico to Newark Liberty Airport.  Unfortunately, she claims, access was available only for the last 10 minutes of her flight.

She says the airline deliberately deceived her by not telling her that its wi-fi system is inoperable outside the U.S. and when airliners fly over water.  

United says no. It says the wi-fi limits are made clear in sign-up advertisements on the plane's seatback monitors, one of which she must have used to pay for the service. 

I can sort of see her point.  She wasted $7.99, most likely because she didn't pay attention when she paid for the access she thought she was buying.  Maybe she is kicking herself for not tucking a newspaper or magazine into her carry-on bag. 

What a reasonable person would do is contact the airline and ask for a refund.  United (not my favorite company, BTW) might have sent her a check, or it might not.  Worst case, she would be out $7.99.  Life would go on.
But instead she called some lawyers, or maybe they called her (which happens frequently these days). Now they want an injunction, compensatory damages and treble damages, plus some consumer fraud damages based on a state law in New Jersey.  They want $5 million.

The potentially aggrieved class is a big one -- all fliers who purchased DirecTV or wi-fi service on any United flight that flew outside the continental U.S. or over water, starting Jan. 1, 2012. 

United has moved to have the suit dismissed.  If the motion is rejected, the airline has two choices:  It can spend time and money preparing for a court fight over a nuisance complaint, or it can capitulate and pay off the woman and her lawyers.

If United settles or loses, the woman may get a several hundred or possibly even a few thousand dollars as the named plaintiff.  All the other members of her class will get tiny checks or, more likely, vouchers of less than $10 for inflight service on future United flights.

The lawyers will collect a million bucks or more.

Theoretically, justice will have been served.

Lawsuits for Fun and Profit

I found a great website, Top Class Actions, while I was reading about this case.  It describes itself as "Connecting Consumers to Settlements, Lawsuits and Attorneys."

Here's the pitch: 

 "We tell you about cash you can claim EVERY WEEK! 
 Sign up for our free newsletter." 

Entrepreneurial types also can use the site to try to gin up their own class-action filings.
Current lawsuit targets include PNC Bank, J. Crew, "Real Ham Bone" Pet Chews, Maker's Mark "Handmade" Bourbon and many, many drug companies and medical manufacturers. 
There are even class action suits for boxing fans disappointed by the dullness of the  Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. 

Everybody wants to be a victim now. 
One settlement, recently concluded, dinged the Ghirardelli Chocolate company for promoting a product that it said included white chocolate chips.  The product did not in fact include white chocolate chips.
     Unfortunately, it is too late sign up for a payout in this case.  If you were tricked into thinking you were eating white chocolate chips, you will have to deal with your trauma unaided by the comfort of a $20 check.  


I'll be honest here.  I don't think class-action lawsuits are what made America great.  There have been some important ones, indeed.  But for several decades now we have seen whole law firms focused on the pursuit of cases whose true aims seem to be to make lawyers rich.  

The system as it stands does not reflect well on the legal profession.  

I don't know how you separate the honest actors from the opportunists and extortionists, but it disappoints me that other members of the bar do not even try to hold their fellows to higher standards.   

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