Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The return of the $0 Costco fuel settlement

You will recall that a class action is pending in Kansas over gasoline retailers' failure to disclose the laws of physics to customers, i.e., gasoline, like all other liquids, expands in higher temperatures. Since a "gallon" is a measure of volume rather than power, someone buying gasoline when it's warm is getting less mileage than someone who buys the same volume of gasoline when it's cool. To some extent, the retailers are being hoist by their own petard, because they pulled the same class-action nonsense on wholesalers, but it's still socially wasteful litigation that benefits no one but the lawyers; when I argued at a fairness hearing in Kansas City last April, I had several dozen witnesses, likely each billing an average of over $400/hour. Costco decided to get the uncertainty off of its books, and agreed to pay the lawyers to go away. But the class members, the ones putatively injured by Costco's conduct, got nothing. The plaintiffs had the chutzpah to claim that Costco's agreement to "temperature-adjust" their fuel sales was a benefit to consumers, but that's clearly not so. If Costco's average "gallon" happens to increase in size a cubic inch or two, that doesn't mean that consumers are getting free gas any more than it would mean that consumers would get free eggs if the government suddenly mandated that a "dozen" was now equal to eighteen.

The court threw out the settlement on a technicality, and the parties are now back with an amended settlement that fixes the technicality, but still doesn't do anything for the class. So my clients renewed their objection to the settlement. Last time around, we challenged the quack economic report that plaintiffs submitted that claimed changing the size of a gallon would magically result in consumers getting tens of millions of dollars of free gasoline; the other side protested that I was just a mere lawyer who wasn't qualified to use big words like "cross-subsidization." Over the last few months, I've discussed this case with several economists, many of whom fell over laughing as I described the testimony of Dr. Andrew Safir; the distinguished Dr. David Henderson was kind enough to charge us a reduced rate to provide a simple rebuttal on short notice this time around.

When is injunctive relief a benefit to the class? So many plaintiffs' lawyers seem confused about this issue: they forget that they represent clients, and the injunctive relief needs to benefit their clients if one is to count it towards determining the fairness of the settlement. Few courts consider the issue because few objectors raise it, but the ones that do consider it consistently distinguish between retrospective injunctive relief (say, a recall that fixes an automobile or a computer) and prospective injunctive relief (a company agrees to change its business practices). Even when there is consumer fraud, prospective injunctive relief doesn't benefit consumers unless they engage in new business with the vendor. And even then, the consumers will not benefit if the vendor simply raises its prices to account for the new costs in the change in business practices.

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