Jean Bailey and her husband are unwitting parties in five class action lawsuits.
There's one accusing Campus Subscriptions of misleading customers into thinking that buying a magazine would help win a prize.
There's one charging Bell Atlantic Mobile with failing to fully disclose its billing practices. There are pending settlement offers from Sprint, State Farm and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.
"It's insane," said Bailey, of Laurel. "It's obvious it's just the lawyers drumming up the most idiotic thing they can and of course, the customers don't get much of anything. These guys can't lose."
Some major companies are fed up, too. Last week DaimlerChrysler Corp. sued Greitzer & Locks of Philadelphia, claiming the law firm had brought frivolous lawsuits charging the company with installing dangerous car seats.
"For too long, trial lawyers have been exploiting class actions, turning these lawsuits into a form of legalized blackmail," DaimlerChrysler Vice President Lew Goldfarb said in a press release.
Class action lawyers assume that companies, eager to avoid bad publicity and legal costs, will agree to settle even the most baseless lawsuit, he said. A spokesman for Greitzer & Locks declined to comment.
But Donald P. Alexander, a Pennsylvania lawyer who is representing the Baileys and other customers in the Bell Atlantic case, said class actions do far more than enrich lawyers.
"What the public needs to remember is that the class action mechanism is there to protect consumers," Alexander said.
Alexander's firm will share up to $1.25 million in legal fees if a judge approves the proposed Bell Atlantic settlement. The Baileys and other cell phone customers would get $15 credit vouchers.
"Class action lawsuits allow consumers to in effect act as private attorney generals," Alexander said. "The only fair way to look at the attorney fees is by comparing the fees to the overall value that a case provides for a settlement class."
But it's not just the attorneys' fees that irk consumers and their advocates. They say some class actions seem deliberately structured to keep consumers in the dark. Other complaints include:
Consumers are generally notified by mail, in thick documents written in arcane legalese. The print size often is microscopic. Only the most determined customers want to wade through the notices to determine whether they are entitled to benefits, advocates say. But class action lawyers and consultants say the notices have to be legally comprehensive.
When large numbers of customers cannot be reached by mail, federal rules require lawyers to give consumers a chance to object by publicizing a proposed settlement in a national publication.
Last year, lawyers posted details of a settlement offer affecting 200,000 customers of Bank United of Texas in the national edition of the New York Times. Those who wanted to redeem a coupon worth $175 to $250 on a future mortgage settlement had to clip the notice and mail it in.
"You have a class of people, almost all of whom live in Texas, and you put the notice in the New York Times? It's ridiculous," said Paul Bland of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a consumer advocacy group.
Consumers often have little time to respond. Those wanting to opt out or collect on a settlement must take aggressive steps to protect their interests.
Under a proposed settlement with Publishers Clearing House, magazine subscription purchasers after February 1992 would be eligible for a refund, plus three extra chances to win a prize in selected company sweepstakes.
Customers with expired subscriptions would be required to mail sworn statements saying they bought the magazines because they believed that would increase their chances of winning prizes. The statements must be notarized, a cost that could exceed the refund.
Settlements often result in a company issuing coupons or vouchers that consumers consider of dubious value. In some cases, the coupons are not transferable or properly honored by vendors. But class action lawyers say settlement amounts should be judged by their total, not by the amount an individual gets.
Sarah Hestley of Solon, Ohio, said when she recently tried to use a $150 coupon in the purchase of a Toyota Sierra minivan, the dealership flatly refused to accept it. "They never even looked at it," she said.
In some cases, after companies agree to pay millions in damages, judges and lawyers place the actual coupon redemption rates under seal.
This prevents consumers from knowing how many coupons were used and how much the action really cost the company. Attorneys' fees are usually based on a share of the projected total cost to the company, not the actual cost.
Alexander said there is usually little incentive to either check on redemption rates or monitor cases once they have been closed.
"Usually there is neither the time nor the financial incentive to do that kind of post hoc analysis," he said. "Nobody wants the lawyers spending more money after the fact, especially if there have been challenges to the fees. Listen, would we like to get more money for people? Yeah. But that's not going to happen."
CAPTION: Jean Bailey displays her collection of unsolicited class action lawsuit mailings; one is 32 pages, she says.