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WEDNESDAY, APRIL 25, 2007
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OP-ED

Jackpot justice not all it's made out to be

By Bob Slate

I received notice of a potential windfall in Monday's mail.

No, I hadn't won one of five prizes that included a Cadillac Escalade, a Rolex watch, $1 million, a 62-inch plasma hi-def television or two nights at the Motel 6. Nor was my offer millions of dollars to discretely hide the profits of some low-level despot in a Third World country.

No, what I received in the mail was notification that I am potentially a recipient of jackpot justice.

Lawyers from two big Miami law firms and a San Diego law firm have, without my knowledge, filed a lawsuit on my behalf in federal court.

After reading the notice of class action and proposed settlement, I realized that a cell-phone insurance provider had indeed wronged me. But I already suspected as much.

What I hadn't realized was the extent to which these attorneys were willing to sell out their client — me — to reap a windfall themselves.

Class-action lawsuits have gotten a mostly undeserved bad reputation. Many class actions can bring justice to large numbers of people who have been harmed by unfair practices by big businesses. My lawsuit does not appear to be one of those.

Class actions also can be a means for a few bright attorneys to realize windfall fees while negotiating little in the way of justice for their clients. My litigation appears to fall into this category.

The lawsuit generally alleges that the cell-phone insurance company fraudulently provided replacement phones worth less than the deductible they charged to clients who filed claims — all the while also charging a monthly premium for this valuable insurance.

Yes, last year, after a member of my family had her $300 cell phone stolen and I paid the $60 deductible, the insurance company had, in fact, provided her with one of those cheap phones that the cell-phone companies give away. I marked it down to one of those painful lessons of experience and moved on.

But my lawyers in Florida and San Diego would not let it go. They filed suit on my behalf, and have negotiated a settlement that will provide me with a $5 phone card if I decide not to opt out of the lawsuit. By not opting out and taking the $5 phone card, according to the proposed settlement, I will give up my right to ever sue the insurance company for this fraud or for any fraudulent actions I may discover in the future.

This settlement is binding on me unless I request exclusion from the class.

It was awfully kind of my lawyers to negotiate this hard-hitting settlement on my behalf. I'm sure they did it out of the goodness of their hearts — and because they stand to make $1.6 million at the conclusion of the litigation, according to the proposed settlement agreement.

Meanwhile, I have until May 21 to decide whether I want my attorneys to continue to represent me or if I want to be excluded from the lawsuit.

Until that time I shall wonder if there are any other bright young attorneys out there willing to represent me should I decide to sue my lawyers in Miami and San Diego for malpractice.

Bob Slate is a Daily copy editor. He lives in Decatur with his wife, Maryemily. They have three children. He can be reached at bslate@decaturdaily.com.

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