Of the growing litany of class action abuses, the recent "offer of service" settlement with Southwestern Bell InLine subscribers is one of the most cockamamie. The settlement reads like a marketing ploy for Southwestern Bell and a hey day for the plaintiff attorneys who stand to pocket $4.5 million. Both are better off after the suit than they were before it, a spokesperson for Consumers Union rightfully noted. The same cannot be said for consumers.
The supposed gain for consumers is that they get a one-time $15 credit or a free three-month use of one of three optional Southwestern Bell services. In the fourth month, however, customers must pay the regular subscription fee unless they call the phone company and cancel.
About 6 million Southwestern Bell customers are automatically parties to the suit unless they opt out in writing. Anyone wanting to participate in the settlement will be getting a bill in the fourth month, and ad infinitum, unless they call Southwestern Bell and tell them to turn off what was previously a free service.
Many customers will come to realize they would have been better off had the suit been dismissed. Not only could this settlement become costly to the supposed beneficiaries, but there seems to be little justification for the suit itself.
The attorney who brought the suit is quoted as saying "we uncovered little, if any, evidence of misconduct." If there was no evidence of misconduct, why file a lawsuit?
Perhaps it is time for judges to become referees in questionable class action suits. Judges could be required to determine whether the small compensation for each individual justifies the costs and burdens of a massive lawsuit. Only then would we see an end to the trivial class actions that provide pennies, coupons or bills for victims but huge fees for attorneys.
Lawrence Fraser, Houston