Metropolis: Wednesday May 23, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Who Wants to Win a Million?

Louisiana law firm web site entices with class-action come-ons.

By LESLIE RIGOULOT

You can find the weirdest thing by following web sites. Like to enter sweepstakes? The latest contests show up on EZ Sweeps.com — including a link to something called ClassActionAmer ica.com, your “online legal solution.” If big business has screwed someone else and you can jump on the bandwagon, you get to share the loot. Enter your credit card number to find out how to get what’s owed you from the “billions of dollars unclaimed every year!” What does it cost? Why, nothing during the 30-day trial period. But if you want more information, the “Gold” information, that will be $29.99.

ClassActionAmerica.com was launched in November 2000 by the Metairie, La., law firm of Kahn and Gauthier, LLC. Partner Lewis Kahn explained that hundreds of class-action lawsuits are settled each year, and that his firm’s web site helps individuals find out whether they might be eligible to share in the judgment proceeds of any of those cases. He claims the site gets 12 million hits a month and is the leading law-related site on the internet. The site’s slogan: “Justice is just a click away.” Or a click and $29.99.

The site provides information without charge on class action suits around the country that are still accepting claimants — which bandwagon to jump on, in other words. For the subscription fee, the site adds information on how to contact lawyers in those cases.

Like the Blast Fax bandwagon. If your fax number is in the database of Dallas-based American Blast Fax Inc., you may be entitled to some money. The Glickman & Hughes law firm in Houston won a $1.73 million class-action suit against the fax company and the Dallas Cowboys. American Blast Fax was hired by the Cowboys to send out faxes on two occasions in 1999, advertising the team’s playoff tickets. Turns out the action may have violated a federal telephone consumer protection act and Texas’ deceptive trade practice laws. (Claims can be submitted until July 1. Ironically, Glickman & Hughes contacted potential claimants on April 24 — by sending a fax to everyone in the Blast Fax database.)

Information about the suit was forwarded to ClassActionAmerica, to see how long it would take to hit the web site.

ClassActionAmerica looks more like a lottery site than a place to find legal advice, with more come-ons than a carnival barker. The opening page asks, “Could you be due money? Could you be due a settlement? Have you taken any of the following drugs?”

The list of cases on the site goes far beyond cases that Kahn and Gauthier itself is handling. “The subscription is how we make money. It [the web site] isn’t that profitable,” Kahn said. However, he said, the firm is filing cases based on information obtained through the site. “We are just now starting to file cases,” Kahn said.

The site is legal and ethical and it provides a needed service, he said. Providing counsel or information is what lawyers do and ClassActionAmerica.com is just a more pervasive way of doing it.

Kahn sees his site and his firm as the champion of the masses, the class in class action. “There are a lot of people denied information because they don’t happen to read USA Today when the AT&T announcement is made. In 99% of the cases [listed on the site] we have no financial interest. We have an ethics council that looks at everything we do.”

The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted by Louisiana and many other states, sets the limits for advertising by attorneys. The rules warn against advertising that makes “appeals to avarice” or raises unjustified expectations about what a client might win from a legal action. In addition, the ABA guidelines say valid cases “can be undermined and diluted” by frivolous lawsuits. The guidelines don’t address the effect on the public’s perception of the justice system when legal web sites seem to operate like game shows.

The Louisiana bar and the state’s attorney discipline office said they have received no complaints about the site.

The ABA also notes that law-firm advertising can be helpful, because “people do not receive needed legal services either because they are unaware of available services, do not understand how they can benefit from those services, or do not understand how to obtain them.”

That is the point that Kahn addresses. “We hope to make a difference. If the consumers don’t know, the money goes back to the companies,” he said. “We get notified of hundreds of cases, call attorneys, get the docket numbers, do the research. Then the information is put online.”

He downplays the importance of the site’s spiel that “justice is just a click away” and “billions of dollars go unclaimed.”

“It’s just a tag line,” he said.

The site does have an awesome section on product recalls. Problem products are listed with links to the manufacturer sites. For instance, according to the site, certain Mongoose bikes are being recalled. So are some Harry Potter key chains. Wyeth-Ayerst is recalling some Premarin tablets. The latches on some Lane cedar chests are being recalled.

Of course, all the information in the site’s recall section is also available from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which issues the recalls. The commission’s hotline is 800-638-2772. Their web address is government guide.com/consumer_services/totalre call.adp. Using information from the government site, it took less than a minute to order a new latch for that cedar chest.

So how long did it take for the site to get the Cowboys’ $1.7 million settlement online? Twelve days. When it appeared online, all the facts had been verified and basic information had been posted — except the contact information for Glickman & Hughes, LLP. For those interested, it’s 877-862-0147. That information is free of charge, no subscription needed.



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