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When mobile operator SFR overcharged clients by 7.3 million euros ($9.4 million), France’s main consumer association sued on behalf of two subscribers and won a ruling that the fee hike was illegal. But the company refused to issues refunds to the 400,000 overbilled customers who weren’t named in the suit — and kept almost all of the cash. Frustrated by the SFR case of 2001 and others like it, the consumer association, UFC-Que Choisir, has lobbied hard for the introduction of U.S.-style class action lawsuits, where an attorney for one or more plaintiffs can also press their claim on behalf of all other potential victims. The pressure paid off in January, when French President Jacques Chirac announced plans for a new class action law, and a government-appointed panel began preparing it this week. “Companies will be alert to the risk of class actions and will give an even higher priority to the consumer and the quality of their products and services than they already do now,” Finance Minister Thierry Breton said this week, with the tact his job requires. But the government also wants to avoid class action “abuses” seen in the United States, said Breton. “They’ve imposed excessive costs on companies on the other side of the Atlantic and damaged the economy as a whole, without delivering any benefit for the vast majority of consumers.” Just as class action lawsuits arrive in Europe — Britain and Sweden have recently opened their courts to limited forms of class actions and Italy is considering them — the United States is taking steps to rein them in. President Bush signed a law in February designed to make it harder to file what he called “junk lawsuits,” which he said have driven the overall cost of U.S. legal bills, civil awards and settlements to $240 billion a year — resulting in higher prices for consumers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pressing for further curbs, and its chief lawyer Stanton Anderson visited Paris on Wednesday to advise French policy-makers: “Don’t do it.” Besides exposing French companies to unfounded litigation, Anderson contends, the new law will make it easier for American lawyers to press frivolous claims against U.S. companies on behalf of French consumers. Indeed, France’s main employers’ group, Medef argues that French class actions should be restricted to plaintiffs who sign up to the lawsuits — rather than being applied automatically to all possible plaintiffs except those who formally withdraw, as in the United States. But UFC-Que Choisir is pushing for the U.S.-style “opt-out” system. Anything less, said legal director Gaelle Patetta, would make it hard to take action when companies like SFR run roughshod over hundreds of thousands of customers. “How can an association like ours manage 400,000 mandates?” she said. Eventually, experts say, the moves afoot in Britain, Sweden and France could lead to a European Union-wide class action law — since governments generally prefer their neighbors’ industries to be exposed to the same kinds of risk as their own. “It’s not for tomorrow, but if it gets off the ground in France, and since we already have it in Sweden, then maybe we’ll see something at a European level,” said Peter Burbidge, a law professor at Britain’s Westminster University. “The French would want others to have it if they have it.” Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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