An effort in Salem to close a striking loophole in Oregon’s laws regulating class action lawsuits is attracting attention across the country as legislators seek both to bring Oregon into accord with practice in most of the rest of the United States and to help poor Oregonians overcome the challenges they face when protecting their rights through our legal system.
For many people the words “class action” conjure images of high profile national cases involving prescription drugs or unsafe cars, or of working conditions most of us can barely imagine (e.g. coal miners in West Virginia). A recent case here in Oregon, however, illustrates just how high the stakes can be in seemingly simple cases. As Portland TV station KOIN notes in a web report, a Multnomah County jury ruled earlier this month “that BP was wrong to charge 35 cents extra for people using their debit cards at Arco gas stations in Oregon.” That may not seem like a lot of money but, according to the station, the overcharging effected “nearly 3 million people” just in the two and a half years between January 2011 and August 2013 (the period covered by the suit). The verdict amounts to an estimated $200 per customer – $600 million in all.
Unless they have kept very good banking records, however, many Oregonians won’t see any of that money. Arco’s parent company, BP, says it has not retained the relevant records. Drivers who can document the number of times they used debit cards at Oregon Arco stations may be able to get some money back – but the vast majority of the “class” covered by the settlement is unlikely ever to see anything. This is where politics comes into play: the question of what happens to any unclaimed damages. Oregon is one of only two states where a company in BP’s position can put the unclaimed money back into its corporate pocket (the other state is New Hampshire).
As a recent Associated Press article outlined there is a move in Salem to close this loophole. HB 4143, which passed the House by a comfortable 36-21 margin earlier this week, would require that unclaimed class action awards “go to an endowment fund controlled by the state treasury. Interest income would be used to fund legal aid lawyers, who represent the poor in civil actions without charge,” the news agency reports. AP also notes that “about 850,000 Oregonians have income low enough to qualify” for legal aid.
From my perspective as a Portland personal injury attorney there really are not two sides to the debate about this proposed law. The question is simply whether we Oregonians will join 48 other states in holding corporations fully accountable for their actions – and ensuring that fines levied by judges and juries are actually paid – or will we listen to facile arguments from one of the biggest oil companies on earth… arguments that amount to allowing BP to pay little or nothing in the way of penalties because it, the company in the wrong, destroyed the transaction records that would have demonstrated its culpability? For the sake of fairness, and in the long-term interest of every Oregonian, rich and poor alike, the answer has to be strong support for HB 4143.