Coupon settlement injustice

The Madison County Record Mar. 15, 2009, 2:55am

Another day, another set of plaintiff's lawyers dueling over copycat class actions.

We've been following one of those battles that has turned unduly ugly. Paul Weiss and Brad Lakin used to be best-class-action-buds, now they're brawling publicly over a pending settlement with phone giant Sprint.

The sniping between the two has been embarrassing even for us. But lest you believe the two irrational, emotional actors letting their personal animus overwhelm their common sense, consider Steve Korris' latest dispatch from the Lakin v. Weiss trenches.

"In a March 2 brief for Sprint, the company valued its settlement with Weiss at $17.5 million," Korris wrote. "Last July, Lakin offered to settle for $13.5 million."

Consider that plaintiff's lawyers like Lakin and Weiss often get one-third of a class action settlement. So in either scenario, the lawyers stand to cash out for millions.

And what about that class, the victims? What about the people these men represent--the folks Sprint "improperly" charged a termination fee after they signed, but didn't fulfill, their wireless phone service contracts?

Most will get $25 in cash--if they activate a new wireless line with Sprint.

Not that these contract-breaking customers are themselves deserving, but a measly $25 in a company credit--a coupon? And the lawyers walk away with millions?

We feel for Sprint and understand its predicament. Its legal fees are paid in cash, too. And defending oneself against even baseless, pointless accusations is quite expensive.

Then there's the risk of getting a wayward jury and losing. Would Sprint be forced to stop offering service contracts to its customers, putting it at a huge disadvantage in the marketplace? Settlement, sadly, becomes the company's best option.

This seeming injustice shouldn't happen. We rely on our judiciary to prevent self-interested lawyers from hijacking our courts for personal benefit. It's time they started taking a harder line with cases like this one.

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