BP class action certified for ARCO station debit card fees

In our long running consumer case, Scharfstein v. BP West Coast Products, Judge LaBarre ruled late last week that the case may go forward as a class action. Judge LaBarre appointed David Sugerman and Tim Quenelle to serve as class counsel. Notice to the class is expected to go out in early November, and trial is set for January 14, 2014.

In the case, consumers claim that BP violated the Oregon Unlawful Trade Practices Act by improperly selling and advertising gas at ARCO stations and am-pm minimarkets. The gas stations advertise their prices without condition, but when consumers pay with debit cards, they are charged a fee–now $.35–on top of the gas purchase price. The consumers claim that the failures to disclose the charges and the addition of the charges on top of the total gas purchase violate Oregon law.

The class seeks $200 per consumer.

There is far to go on this case. If you have experience with these charges and would like to share your story with us, could you drop me a line or call us (503.228.6474)?


Moving to dismiss the appeal brought by Career Education Corp and Western Culinary

For those interested, I’m posting our recent motion to dismiss and motion for reconsideration in Surrett v. Career Education Corp., our consumer fraud class against Career Education Corp for Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland students.

We had cleared all pretrial motions and were steaming toward our January trial date when the Career Education Corp defendants filed an appeal of a ruling made by the trial judge. The problem with that is that if the appeal is allowed to go forward, we will lose our trial date. We’ve asked the Court of Appeals to dismiss the appeal. Barring that, we’ve asked the Court to release those class members who aren’t affected by the appeal from the holding pattern so that they can go to trial.

Lots more about it than all that. But that’s the short version.

It’s dry and complicated, but it gives those who are in the class some idea of what the legal team is up to. Here it is in PDF: Plaintiff-Respondent Surrett’s Petition for Reconsideration and Motion to Dismiss Appeal

We will update when we hear from the Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, know that the fight goes on.


At the tipping point: Have our rights to trial by jury been taken away?

Last night’s HBO premier of Hot Coffee, The Movie provided a great summary of all the ways in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, large foreign corporations, and political operatives have banded together to end the right to trial by jury. Filmmaker Susan Saladoff did a masterful job of showing how deliberately falsified talking points, loaded memes, anti-consumer legislation, court packing, and forced mandatory arbitration have been used to deprive consumers of their rights to trial by jury.

Things have only gotten worse since production of Hot Coffee. As I have noted previously, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered two pro-business/anti-consumer opinions this term. This one makes consumer class actions even harder to maintain, and this one makes forced mandatory arbitration even harder to avoid. The picture painted by by Susan Saladoff’s brilliant film gets more finely defined by the Supreme Court’s recent term.

At home, I watched Hot Coffee with my beloved, who has been my biggest supporter for all of the years I have struggled to do what is right for consumers in our civil justice system. She also took me to task over language in my recent blog posts–she’s something of a message genius. She points out, correctly, that I must stop using the language and the memes of the corporate shills who seek to corrupt the civil justice system.

Okay my beloved. You win. I will listen to your wise counsel. So no more use of their memes, talking points and phrases.

Instead, let’s focus on what they have done. Through a deliberate campaign hatched by the cynical pro-corporate strategists, our precious right to trial by jury hangs on the edge.

They cannot accept a justice system that grants consumers and ordinary citizens the power to call corporate wrongdoers to account. They cannot allow the rest of us to have access to justice.  By a cold and deliberate strategy, they have simply chosen to nullify the Seventh Amendment, in order to eliminate consumers’ rights to trial by jury.  The question becomes whether we allow this to happen or fight back to protect our rights.

One of my heroes, Erin Brockovich, pointed out long ago that the problem with giving up constitutional rights is that they are gone forever. The right to trial by jury protects us from government abuse and from corporate misconduct. It looks to me like we are in fact tipping back, and consumers are beginning to to understand the importance of these issues. We can only hope.


Food Safety Legislation S 510–Safety over fear

Good to see that the Senate is set to pass S. 510, a bill that would help regulate food producers. By way of background, we’ve had a lot of outbreaks of food-related disease due to unsafe and unregulated food producers. The problem is exacerbated by the rise of large scale farming. When unregulated and unsafe producers are large scale, the havoc caused by tainted food spreads far and wide.

That’s how we get the salmonella and E. coli outbreaks. A bad peanut processor in Georgia can cause havoc here in Oregon. Food-borne sickness causes 5,000 deaths a year and 300,000 hospitalizations.  That’s a serious safety issue.

To hear opponents talk about it, the passage of amendments to our food safety laws represents a profound danger of government meddling and over-regulation.  On my Facebook page, a family member posted a link to an article arguing that the FDA would soon be outlawing gardeners from saving seeds.  There is nothing in the bill that allows anyone to rationally make that argument. Apart from that, the FDA does not have authority or power to regulate home gardens and purely local food producers who sell in-state.

I understand fears of overreaching by the federal government. I’m hardly an apologist for the government.  And I’m also a longtime organic gardener, farmers market shopper and supporter of local agriculture.  Still, we need to be able to trust our food supply.  Seems to me that we shouldn’t have to worry that the peanut butter we buy at the store might be tainted.  Kids, sick people, and the elderly are at high risk for dangerous food-borne illnesses.  Seems like we should choose safety over fear.

Thinking about toy safety

Nice post  here on holiday toy safety. It’s a timely reminder for parents and grandparents who might be out shopping for kids’ gifts. There are those who grumble about toy safety initiatives and safety regulations.  The reality is that those who complain haven’t faced the horror of a profoundly injured child.   Nothing compares to that type of tragedy. No family should have to go through anything like it.

That’s meant as kudos for oregonconsumer.org. There aren’t enough independent voices out there protecting consumers.  That’s why I am a supporter.

New information resource for Oregon consumers

Kind of excited to see that the Oregon Consumer web page has gotten its sea legs and is publishing.  Here is the link for some interesting information on a wide range of consumer issues. I’ll be monitoring and noting some of their published reports. My hope is that the web page realizes its potential,  as we consumer advocates need all the help we can get.

Western Culinary Institute class action featured in New York Times story

Peter Goodman of The New York Times does a nice job here of looking at the problem of for-profit trade schools. The story mentions our class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland.  And while it’s all exciting to see the case written up in the Times, that’s hardly the point.

The Goodman article points out the disparity between the costs of trade school education and expected earnings.  I was taken by a Sr. Vice President, Brian Williams, comment, “You go in the industry and work your way up.”

I don’t have any idea how much Mr. Williams knows about labor statistics. But the cold reality is that there are very few high-paying jobs in the culinary field–at least as compared to the scads of low-wage kitchen jobs that require no training. In short, there isn’t much “up” to reach.

Some suggest that this is not different from an expensive law or medical degree or a BA in liberal arts from a four-year school. I suppose it’s tempting to take that view, but in reality the differences are profound.

Let’s look at them.

Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu say in their catalogs that they provide entry level training. In the lawsuit, we take issue with what they don’t tell students.  A culinary degree doesn’t provide a student much in the way of qualifications for an entry level kitchen job. By comparison, you simply can’t practice law or medicine without degrees and licenses.

In marketing the program, the school tells its prospective students about high placement rates–above 90 percent. But they don’t talk about the pay.  The school collects initial placement and earnings for its graduates. As the New York Times article explains, the vast majority of students earn very low wages upon graduation. Those low earnings won’t allow most students to repay their loans.

Defenders of for-profit trade schools also cite the profoundly expensive four-year bachelors degree problem. They are right about the high cost of four year schools, but wrong to compare the two. Ivy league schools cost far in excess of most middle income families’ abilities to pay, leading many students to incur heavy debt loads.

But several things are different.  The liberal arts program doesn’t sell itself as “vocational training.” Nor does it tout its placement statistics or skill-based career training as the reason to attend. And the universities aren’t run by billion dollar corporations who are concerned about their Wall Street performance.

Our case has taken two years so far. If we succeed, students who suffered losses will recover money that will help pay down their debts.

We need better oversight of these schools, these loans and these lending practices, as students who enroll at for-profit trade schools often are underwater from the day they graduate.  Effective oversight of trade school programs and educational loans would prevent these types of abuses.

Oregon injury claims–what Oregon consumers need to know (Part 1)

This is one of those posts that is read only by those who need to know. So first, I am sorry that you find yourself needing to review this information.

There is a lot of misinformation out there. This is a summary of what I’ve learned as an injury attorney in Oregon over the last two decades.

So let’s start with the big picture. Here are three things you need to understand about the Oregon injury system.

1. Nothing that happens here will leave you better off. You are not reading this to get rich and that’s a good thing because that won’t happen. The Oregon system is conservative.

2. The Oregon injury system shouldn’t be used for small injuries or near-misses. While near misses are scary and traumatic, the reality is that resources are limited and need to be available for those who are badly injured.

3. Injury claims stand or fall on three basic elements: 1) fault, 2) “causation;” and 3) harm. That means that compensation is available only if someone else was at fault, that fault caused harm, and the harm was significant.

So how do these principles apply? Motor vehicle collisions  provide a good way of illustrating the principles.

1. The system is conservative; you’re not going to get rich

Let’s look at the first one. If you were injured in a motor vehicle collision, you know this truth in a fundamental way. Given a choice between health and money, you would choose health every time. Put another way, you didn’t choose to be in this system. If you didn’t have to worry about your medical bills, or your damaged neck or back, you would be less stressed. And without the pain and limitations, you would be healthier and happier.

If your body worked like it did before the crash, you would be out there living your life and not dealing with the uncertainty that comes with injury. You certainly don’t think of this as a lottery win, and anyone who thinks otherwise probably doesn’t understand your life.

The lottery comments are particularly offensive. When you pay two bucks to play the lottery, you choose the entertainment and the fun. When an inattentive driver takes away your health,  you didn’t make a choice, and it certainly cost you more than two bucks.  Having said all that, Oregonians are thrifty by nature and rarely provide large money assessments when cases go to trial. They expect you to get by on less and to not be defeated by your challenges. You understand that, of course. The rare cases of large damage assessments simply mean that the consumer is badly injured. That’s cold comfort, at best.

2. Near misses

I imagine this has happened to you. A crazy driver blows a stop sign or a red light. Or maybe an inattentive driver turns in front of you. Through a combination of your vigilance, skill, and luck, you manage to avoid the collision. “That jerk could have killed me,” you think. And you’re right of course. Still, we don’t dabble in near misses. In Oregon, we expect you to gather yourself and go on. The same is true of trivial injuries. The bruise that heals in a few days isn’t worth troubling over. We teach our young kids to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and go on. The same is true here.

3. The three elements

To pursue a claim, we must prove that someone’s fault caused your harms and losses. Sometimes it’s obvious. A drunk driver runs a stop sign and plows into your car. You’re badly injured. Medical expense, time lost from work, and uncertain future of pain and disability result. That’s the easy case.

But cases are often harder than all that. Fault is often the easiest part of the case. It is proving the connection between the fault and the harms and losses and the extent of those harms that gets harder. So, for example, sometimes the injured person has been injured before. After all, few of us get through life without some prior history. The at-fault driver will often argue that your neck injury was “actually” something that existed before. The law says that the fact you were more susceptible doesn’t let the unsafe driver off the hook.  But it’s easy to sow doubts.

This is particularly challenging when, for example, a doctor makes an error and a patient suffers profound injury. The error part is generally the easy part of the case. But showing how the error led to the result is hard, especially when the patient was sick or otherwise compromised to start.


That’s enough for this post.  There are often many challenges in pursuing an injury case, so don’t mistake this summary for all the detail that goes into investigating and proving a claim. Want more? Part 2 is here. And Part 3 is here.

David Sugerman