One of the least-appealing artifacts of the American legal system, if you ask me, is the class-action suit, in which a group of presumably-aggrieved plaintiffs take on a presumably-deep-pocketed defendant. Otherwise, we are told, said plaintiffs would never stand a chance against Big Corporate Law.

Now theoretically, a class-action suit can go in the reverse direction — one plaintiff, many defendants — or both ways at once. In an example of the latter, several victims of sexual abuse sued the Archdiocese of Portland, and all the parishioners were named as defendants, in an effort to insure that the assets of local parishes could be tapped. The Archdiocese itself actually filed for bankruptcy, and eventually settled with the victims from its own resources, mostly insurance proceeds. This is, however, an exceptional case: the vast majority of class-action suits, or at least the ones which have named me as a member of the class, deal with matters comparatively trifling.

I received a settlement notice this week, in fact. Here's an overview of the suit:

A Settlement was made on behalf of a nationwide class of consumers who booked hotel stays through Expedia from January 10, 2001 through June 11, 2008 and paid a "Tax Recovery Charge" and a "Service Fee." The Settlement provided for the distribution to Class Members of $123.4 million in cash payments and Expedia Settlement Credit that can be used for hotel reservations and "package" reservations that include hotel reservations.

Consumers of hotel stays through Expedia ("Plaintiffs") filed a lawsuit against Expedia primarily concerning the bundled "Tax Recovery Charges" and "Service Fees" charged by Expedia when consumers book a hotel stay through Expedia's website or telephone operators. The Plaintiffs alleged that, in its assessment of "Tax Recovery Charges" and "Service Fees," Expedia (i) committed deceptive or unfair practices in violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act ("CPA") from January 10, 2001 to June 11, 2008, and (ii) breached its contractual obligations from February 18, 2003 through December 11, 2006.

Now I don't live in Washington state — never even been to Washington state — but this is Expedia's home turf. (It's also Microsoft's home turf; historians will remember that Microsoft actually bankrolled Expedia and operated it for several years before spinning it off.) And I have used Expedia for hotel reservations, though I don't recall any particularly-heinous Service Fee; had I seen such, I knew I had plenty of options elsewhere.

Not that I'm getting much of a refund as a result of this settlement:

You are receiving this notice of credit because you booked a hotel stay through Expedia and paid "Tax Recovery Charges" or "Service Fees" during the period from January 10, 2001 through June 11, 2008. As part of the settlement, you are entitled to receive $6.56 in the form of an Expedia Coupon. The coupon has been deposited into your Expedia Account and is available for use on Expedia.com. You must book your travel by July 31, 2011 and complete travel by January 31, 2012. Your coupon expires when the total amount is used or on July 31, 2011, whichever is earlier. If you use your coupon to make a reservation, any remainder of the coupon will be available for your use until the earlier of (1) the date that the coupon expires or (2) such time as the total amount of the coupon is used. For further details and terms and conditions on the use of your coupon, please review the "My Expedia Coupon" Terms and Conditions below.

This coupon is valid on Expedia Special Rate (ESR) hotels, flight + ESR hotel packages, flight + ESR hotel + car packages, and ESR hotel + car packages.

The Terms and Conditions go on for several paragraphs; one must be truly dedicated to the task of securing this enormous sum (almost seven whole dollars!) to jump through all the designated hoops.

Some other folks did a bit better for themselves:

The Final Approval hearing was held on December 1, 2009 before the Honorable Monica J. Benton, at King County Superior Court, Maleng Regional Justice Center, 401 Fourth Avenue North, Kent, WA 98032. At the hearing, the Settlement was approved as fair, reasonable and adequate and the Named Plaintiffs were approved to receive incentive awards in an amount of $7,500 each. The Court also approved the award of attorneys' fees and costs to Plaintiffs' counsel of $10 million and an Order of Final Judgment and Dismissal was entered.

Not being a Named Plaintiff, I certainly don't have any reason to expect $7,500. (In fact, I wasn't even aware of this action when it was first undertaken.) However, you can see who's making the Big Bucks here. And this is consistent with something I said back in February: "In class-action suits, the plaintiffs receive something nominal and the lawyers receive a bundle." It's no wonder lawyers love them. For the rest of us: meh.

The Vent

#684
  8 July 2010

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