Barbie Doll suit settles in Madison County

Steve Korris Jun. 29, 2005, 10:45am


Mattel Company and two doll collectors have called off a mammoth six-year lawsuit over the prices of Barbie dolls.

Madison County Circuit Judge Phillip Kardis had planned a June 30 hearing in his Granite City court on all pending motions in the case, but on June 17 attorneys told him to cancel the hearing.

Attorneys told Kardis that the parties had settled and stipulations would follow.

The long legal struggle had generated a case file four feet thick.

Madison County resident Pamela Cunningham and Cook County resident Reet Caldwell sued Mattel in 1999, claiming that the toy maker deceptively advertised certain Barbie dolls as limited editions.

Cunningham was miffed because she bought a $40 doll from a Traveling Sisters set through an “exclusive” offer in a catalog, only to find another retailer selling the doll without the Traveling Sisters label.

On another occasion she tried to buy Winter, the first doll in a Four Seasons series. Informed that Winter was no longer available, she ordered Spring for about $75. She claimed that Mattel then contacted her and offered Winter to her.

She and Caldwell alleged breach of contract and violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act. They sought certification as representatives of a class of Barbie buyers.

Discovery disputes dragged on for three years. Plaintiff attorney Martin Perron of St. Louis blamed Mattel for delays and moved for sanctions.

Defense attorney Phyllis Kupferstein of Los Angeles responded that the motion was “filled with lies.” She wrote that Mattel produced thousands of pages of discovery.

Kardis held a hearing on the motion but did not rule on it.

The case centered on the meaning of “limited edition.”

St. Louis University marketing professor James Fisher, an expert for the plaintiffs, said in a deposition that customers generally understood that limited edition meant a product was produced in relatively small numbers.

Mattel attorney Diane Hutnyan of Los Angeles asked Fisher if 100,000 dolls was a relatively small number. Fisher said, “No.” Hutnyan asked if 50,000 was a relatively small number. Fisher again said, “No.”

Hutnyan asked if 30,000 was a relatively small number. Fisher said, “I think you are – you are trying – Well, I am not going to offer a precise number.”

At a hearing in 2002, Perron told Kardis that limited edition meant a relatively small number. Kardis said, “Relative to what?”

Kardis dismissed the complaint, but he granted Perron leave to amend it.

Perron’s amended complaint no longer relied on Illinois consumer fraud law. He based the complaint on California’s Unfair Competition Law.

In 2003, Kardis certified the suit as a national class action under California law. He wrote that Mattel’s headquarters were in California, and that it sometimes sold directly to consumers from there.

He wrote that California law required minimal proof of causation and injury. He wrote that even a true statement might violate California law and that no defense under statute of limitations would apply.

By that time, however, California voters had begun to understand that their law might have caused great harm.

A reform group, Californians to Stop Shakedown Lawsuits, argued that the law turned lawyers into bounty hunters. They placed an initiative on the November 2004 ballot to rewrite the law. The initiative passed.

Kardis responded in January by decertifying the Barbie suit as a class action. His ruling meant that Cunningham and Caldwell could pursue their claims only as individuals.

As individuals, they settled.

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