How (not) to resolve a customer complaint

While Irish law does not permit class actions in the way that they operate in the US, a recent small claims court case in the US looks like it may create a potential headache for companies, particularly in relation to marketing and advertisement-related claims.

Ms Heather Peters bought a Honda Civic Hybrid but was unhappy with the fuel efficiency of the car. She was particularly dissatisfied with the mileage that she achieved compared with some of Honda’s (statutorily mandated) fuel economy claims. Even though hybrid vehicles are still in a phase of rapid development, that didn’t stop a class action lawsuit being filed against Honda in the US. Ms Peters, however, was unhappy with the compensation she would have received under the class action so she opted out of the lawsuit and elected to sue Honda in the Los Angeles small claims court instead. Thanks to a blizzard of national US (and even some international) media and online publicity, her case became headline news and the US$9,867.19 award she received from the court on 25 January now risks snowballing into a much bigger problem for Honda in America.

The specific danger for Honda is that the publicity that has attached to her case (you can read a good summary here and you can access the Los Angeles County court order here) will trigger a rash of copycat actions across the USA and perhaps even further afield. Those claims could cost far more than Honda will have paid to settle the previous class action. Who would have thought that class actions – in an internet age – might actually be good for defendant companies?

Here in Ireland, companies need to be mindful of complaints from unhappy customers which have the potential to morph into a bigger problem. Customer complaint departments need to have clear escalation procedures in place to allow involvement of in house counsel (if available) or senior management (who can involve company legal advisors if needs be). Staff need to be trained to evaluate the potential of an issue snowballing in significance. The Irish Small Claims Procedure offers a collaborative way to resolve disputes. If however a dispute has broader ramifications (eg in relation to a business process that has been applied to many transactions over a long period of time or a product which has sold in significant numbers), companies need to make sure that even apparently trivial matters in the lower courts (such as the Small Claims Court, the District Court or even the Circuit Court) are not allowed to set a harmful precedent for a spate of follow-on or copycat claims from other customers.

Honda America have said they plan to appeal the US court’s judgement (they probably have no other option at this stage but it’s difficult to see how they can ‘win’ decisively from their current position). It will be interesting to see how the matter progresses. One thing is clear however, the ease with which an adverse judgement can spread virally over the internet is changing some of the old dynamics in consumer litigation and disputes.

RTE reaches agreement with the Competition Authority

On 17 January 2012, the Competition Authority published details of the agreement it reached with RTE in October 2011. This article discusses the implications arising from the agreement, the changes RTE has made to its television advertising marketing processes and some possible implications for private competition law enforcement in Ireland.

RTE agreement with Competition Authority following TV3 complaint

Update on the Bread Wars: McCambridges v Brennans

In an interesting follow up to last week’s findings by the High Court in favour of McCambridges in the case of McCambridge Limited v Joseph Brennan Bakeries, the High Court today ruled that McCambridges are only entitled to recover 40% of their costs of the High Court action against Brennans.

In many other jurisdictions (particularly the US) a losing party is not ordered to bear the legal costs of the winner. However that is the position in Ireland. As a result, McCambridges are likely to be as unhappy with this ruling as Brennans were with the court’s ruling last week. It remains to be seen if they can settle their differences or if the case will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The reason the judge made this finding was that McCambridges advanced a number of claims (which took up quite a bit of the time involved in the case) which were not successful. Chief amongst these was the claim that Brennans deliberately set out to mimic McCambridges’ packaging. Since proving an intent to mislead the consumer is not necessary to succeed in a passing off action it is open to question as to why McCambridges took this approach.

McCambridges also claimed copyright infringement and breach of the Consumer Protection Act but these did not take up much time in the case so they weren’t material to the issue of costs.

This case now offers an important lesson to intellectual property rights holders and brand owners. They should limit the scope of their claims in any legal action to the essential elements of their claim to have the maximum chance of recovering costs against the defendant.

McCambridge Ltd. v Joseph Brennan Bakeries

The High Court earlier this year has been the venue for a dispute between two leading Irish bread makers – McCambridges and Brennans – about packaging and branding. The case is particularly interesting because of the rise generally in recent years of attempts by the producers of non-branded and white label goods to benefit from some of the positive associations that branded goods have in consumers’ minds. This article discusses some of the issues in this case at a critical juncture after an initial finding by the High Court that there has been confusion in the minds of consumers.

McCambridges v Brennans – Passing off and the value of registered IP rights