The Conventional Wisdom — often conventional, not so often wise — has decided that the states' proposed settlement with the tobacco industry is dead in the water, and some of the critics of the settlement have weighed in with the observation that basically, the industry is getting let off the product-liability hook in exchange for enough money to fund pet government projects. This seemed to me to be too obvious a quo for this particular quid, until I opened last night's mail.

I suspect that James J. Lindsay, et al. v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, et al. has probably not been the prime-time feature on Court TV lately, but it does seem to affect a lot of us out here on the Plain Plains. Mr Lindsay filed a class-action suit against the telco, complaining about its inside wire-maintenance services sold under the names InLine® and InLine Plus®, and in December 1997, the parties reached a settlement, which not incidentally enjoins all SBT customers from seeking further damages, and which is now being revealed to all of us who subscribed to those services.

Interestingly, the settlement isn't actually going to cost the telco much of anything. If I'm reading the instructions from the "Settlement Administrator" correctly, what the customers get from it is 90 days' worth of certain optional services, which they then must cancel or start paying for as part of their monthly bill. Those who already subscribe to all the proffered services will be given a credit of $15, but if you don't already take all the services and don't want them added on, you're up the Ganges without an air freshener. I have two lines, and unless I decide to tart up my phone service with more bells (sorry) and whistles, I don't get anything from this settlement other than a lot of paperwork and a topic for an article.

Admittedly, I'm not the one griping about the phone service, either — during that part of my life when I wasn't actually working for them, the company generally treated me fairly well — but it strikes me as pretty ingenious, a settlement that manages to avoid paying a substantial number of claimants, and further manages to pry some extra bucks out of others. To our friendly neighborhood global telecommunications company, this must be a dream come true. To the tobacco industry, this suggests an obvious next move: Get rid of your existing litigation team and hire the guys from the phone company. You might even get to bring Joe Camel out of mothballs.

The Vent

#96
9 April 1998

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