Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service
Washington State's highest court on Thursday let a class-action
lawsuit alleging overcharging by Cingular Wireless LLC go forward.
The state Supreme Court said a clause in Cingular's contract that
prevented subscribers from starting class-action suits was unfair and
sent the case back to the trial court in King County where it began.
The suit was filed in 2004 on behalf of a small number of Washington
customers of Cingular Wireless LLC, now part of AT&T Inc. It said the
carrier advertised free roaming in areas covered by AT&T Wireless,
which was then a separate company, but hit the customers with roaming
charges anyway. It also said customers were improperly charged for
long distance on some calls, said Douglas Dunham, an attorney
representing the plaintiffs. They alleged Cingular had overcharged
customers between US$1 and $40 per month.
The plaintiffs' attempt to start a class-action suit was blocked by a
clause in the Cingular customer contract, which said disgruntled
subscribers couldn't form or join classes to sue the carrier. As a
result, they didn't even get to the stage of finding out how many
customers in Washington or nationally may have been affected, Dunham
said. Now that they have won on appeal, the plaintiffs will pursue a
class action, he said.
AT&T is studying the ruling, spokesman Walt Sharp said. The carrier
could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to F.
Paul Bland, staff attorney at Public Justice, a public-interest law
firm in Washington, D.C., that helped argue the plaintiffs' case.
In cases involving small amounts of money, consumers need to be able
to pursue class actions, Bland said.
"Cingular was trying to write a contract term that would make it
impossible for their customers to vindicate their legal rights... if
Cingular cheated them out of small sums of money," Bland said. "Even
though Cingular broke its contract and engaged in a bait-and-switch
that netted it millions of dollars, almost no individuals would ever
be able to take their claims forward and get justice."
The decision will make it harder for other companies, such as credit
card issuers, to introduce similar bans on class-action suits in
Washington, Dunham predicted. In the Cingular case, it will probably
take several months to get the class of plaintiffs certified and to
gauge damages, he said. The case might not go to trial for two years,
Copyright 2007 PC World Communications, Inc.
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