Judge Edward Carnes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Atlanta
Judge Edward Carnes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Atlanta (Photo: Guerry Redmond)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has issued a ruling that opens the road for a class action lawsuit over traffic cameras that catch drivers running red lights.

The opinion addresses only which court will hear the case, but it shows what a litigation snarl cities can get into when they hire private companies to rev up their traffic ticket cash flow.

“We’re happy with it,” plaintiffs attorney James Doyle Fuller of Fuller & Copeland in Montgomery, Alabama, said Thursday of the ruling. “I filed this lawsuit two years ago and haven’t been able to take a single deposition because it’s been locked up in procedural matters. At least now I can get on with my case.”

Along with Susan Glasscock Copeland of Fuller & Copeland, Fuller represents Charles Hunter and Mike Henderson, the named plaintiffs in a class action against the city of Montgomery and American Traffic Solutions. They alleged that a “civil violation” law specially enacted to facilitate Montgomery’s traffic cam program violates the Alabama Constitution.

They also alleged the city and the traffic cam company “intentionally made yellow lights too short so that drivers would not have enough time to stop before the light turned red, leading to more violations and more revenue,” as Chief Judge Ed Carnes put it.

Fuller said he has abandoned the yellow light argument for now because it’s difficult to prove and he doesn’t think he will need it. He expects to win on the first argument – violation of the state constitution.

The city and the company removed the case from state court to federal court. Judge Barbara Jacobs Rothstein of the Middle District of Alabama sent it back. The defendants appealed her remand. On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit affirmed Rothstein’s ruling that the case belonged in its home court.

Carnes wrote for a panel that included Judge Robin Rosenbaum and Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the Fifth Circuit, sitting by designation. Carnes based the decision on determining that the city is the primary defendant, not the company. That, Carnes reasoned, is because it’s the city that would pay the potential millions of dollars in damages if the class members win.

The city is being defended by Robert Poundstone IV of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Montgomery. American Traffic Solutions is represented by Kim Boyle of Phelps Dunbar in New Orleans. They could not be immediately reached.

Hunter and Henderson are asking the court to enjoin the city and the company from further use of the traffic cams. They are also asking that the city be required to pay back all the fines collected from the traffic cams and to cover attorney fees.

“It’s a very significant decision for people who do class actions,” Fuller said. That’s because Carnes provided the Eleventh Circuit’s first definition of a primary plaintiff, based on who pays the potential bill.

“It is not difficult to apply this potential monetary loss standard in this case,” Carnes said. “The only request for monetary relief in the amended complaint is for a refund of all traffic fines collected in connection with the red light camera program. That monetary relief is sought from the city alone, not from Traffic Solutions. Even if the city could and did seek indemnification or contribution from Traffic Solutions for any refunds it paid,” the company’s liability would be “vicarious” or “secondary,” which is not enough to make it a “primary defendant.”

Fuller estimated the fines could total $10 million.

“It’s been a good revenue source for them,” Fuller said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s not about catching people running red lights. I know that. And I expect by the time I’m done, the court will know that, too.”

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