Last week, I wrote about how Cellular One customers, including me, received a letter informing us that, thanks to the settlement of a class action lawsuit, we were entitled to a $15 discount on expensive Cellular One products. In other words, I wrote, the injury entitled us to an insult.
After receiving more than 100 letters, telephone calls and e-mails, I decided to ask the judge in the case what he was thinking when he approved this deal. It stemmed from the decision by Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems Inc. (owned by SBC Communications Inc.), which operates as Cellular One in the Washington area, to settle charges that it had not fully disclosed that it rounds up to the minute the cellular telephone calls its customers make.
Anyway you looked at the settlement I couldn't see how it was fair.
The lawyers in the class action case reportedly got more than $1 million (the lawyers have not returned my calls). Consumers, like me, got a $15 voucher.
So, I had just one question for Judge George J. Moran, the Illinois state judge who last year approved the settlement.
I asked Moran: "How could you think this settlement was fair?"
His reply: "I really can't comment, but I understand your frustration. I did what I thought was right at the time. It's just the way the ball bounces."
Well, when it comes to such class action settlements the ball isn't bouncing at all. Rather it is being whacked right up side the head of consumers who have to contend with bad settlements thrown at us by big companies, judges and plaintiff attorneys, who are fortunate enough to settle their bills in cash--in millions.
The Cellular One settlement, it turns out, is part of a disturbing trend called "coupon settlements." Just take a look at a few of these:
* To settle charges that the company misrepresented port charges collected from customers, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. offered former passengers coupons ranging in value from $8 to $30. The vouchers could only be used to reduce the fare for future Royal Caribbean cruises. Several other cruise lines offered similar "coupons" to settle similar allegations about padding their port charges.
* To settle charges that its Ford Mustang convertibles had faulty door assemblies and weak side frames, Ford Motor Co. agreed to give consumers a nontransferable $400 coupon. Of course, it was only usable toward the purchase of another Ford vehicle.
* In an infamous computer monitor case, 20 computer manufacturers allegedly misrepresented monitor screen size. Class members (an estimated 40 million consumers, businesses and government agencies) were offered a $13 rebate on the purchase of a new monitor. The attorneys in the case reportedly took about $6 million in fees.
"At worst these coupon settlements are marketing schemes," said Brian Wolfman, a staff attorney for Public Citizen Litigation Group. "At best the companies get away with giving away almost nothing because the large majority of the class gets nothing because they are not in the market for the product or service."
What I find most disturbing is what little evidence there is suggest that most consumers do not benefit from coupon settlements.
"Frequently less than 2 percent of the class gets anything," said Paul Bland, a trial lawyer with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a nonprofit public-interest law group. "What's happening is claims that might be worth 50 cents on the dollar are getting compromised for a few pennies on the dollar. Courts should insist that as a condition of approving these settlements that the companies have to file a report of the redemption rate."
In last week's column I said consumers have to make their discontent with these settlements heard. In fact, Moran said he received little opposition from consumers. It might have helped, the judge said, if a boatload of angry Southwestern Bell customers had shown up in his court.
Frankly, it's not fair to lay the burden of this at the feet of consumers. We shouldn't have to fly all the way to Illinois to state the obvious.
Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. If you want to discuss today's column, join her tomorrow at washingtonpost.com for a live debate at 1 p.m. She will also be discussing this column tomorrow on the "Insight" program with Herman Washington on WHUR (96.3-FM) at 6:40 p.m. Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.