The headlines suggested that the cases were all but over. The reality is that there’s a long way to go until the civil litigation against Pilot Flying J ends.
The first hint of potential trouble already has surfaced, less than two days after a judge in Arkansas gave tentative approval to the settlement of a nationwide class action on behalf of all customers defrauded by the company run by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
“The thing that bothers us the most about this class settlement is that it is like a bank robber who gets caught red-handed stealing money, offering to return the money with interest in order to avoid prosecution,” said Jeffrey Friedman, who represents Shoreline Transportation, of Alabama.
He has a good point. Fraud falls into the category of what the law calls “intentional torts.” The available damages include compensation for any actual losses (i.e., the money that wasn’t paid), compensation for “general” damages like aggravation and inconvenience, and punitive damages aimed at deterring others from doing the same thing in the future.
In this specific case, forcing Pilot Flying J to pay back all the money it didn’t pay in the first place plus interest and attorneys’ fees doesn’t exactly fire a warning shot to any other company that would be tempted to try to get away with widespread fraud against unsuspecting customers. A major award of monetary damages aimed at making an example of the offending party ultimately could be the best recourse.
While each individual customer will have the ability to opt out of the proposed settlement and pursue its own claim for compensatory and punitive damages, constitutional limits on punitive damages would result in much smaller awards on a per-customer basis. Only with all customers joined in one lawsuit that is pushed to the limit will Pilot Flying J be held to maximum financial accountability.
Really, why wouldn’t all of the customers who were duped want to hold Pilot Flying J to maximum financial accountability? In this case, more than 20 class-action lawsuits were filed, Pilot Flying J’s lawyers found the one lawyer who was willing to settle quickly, and now the rest of the customers’ hands potentially will be tied.
An opportunity nevertheless exists for these supposedly unsophisticated trucking companies to show how sophisticated they really are. They can all opt out of the Arkansas settlement, they can band together in the jurisdiction deemed to be most favorable to their cause, and they can push the case all the way to and through trial, aiming for a verdict that will inflict the kind of financial damage that will echo throughout every American industry.
As former Pilot Flying J V.P. of Sales John Freeman allegedly said (according to the affidavit supporting the issuance of a search warrant), “I don’t want to get into a moral or ethical conversation, because I believe that if a guy’s gonna butt-f–k you then we got to go to butt-f–kin’ him harder.”
For the customers who had been on the wrong end of that specific activity, they now have an opportunity to return the favor. Frankly, it’s amazing that any of them would want to settle their claims only for the money that was stolen from them, plus six-percent interest.