“This is a case about reasonableness.”
So said Howard Shapiro, an attorney representing Comcast in King County Superior Court on Monday. He was telling Judge Timothy Bradshaw that Comcast acted appropriately with customers and employees when marketing a customer care program called the Service Protection Plan.
But the question of reasonableness defines the entire lawsuit between the State of Washington and Comcast that kicked off Monday. What can we reasonably expect from a corporation, a customer, and an employee under Washington’s comprehensive Consumer Protection Act?
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson clearly expects more from Comcast. Attorneys from his office allege that Comcast violated the Consumer Protection Act tens of thousands of times by signing customers up for the Service Protection Plan without their consent, failing to disclose that there was a monthly fee associated with it, and misrepresenting what was covered. The Service Protection Plan is a monthly subscription that covers maintenance of in-home wiring for Xfinity TV, internet and voice, and troubleshooting for customer-owned equipment.
“Comcast deceived thousands of Washington consumers,” Ferguson said in a statement to GeekWire. “For example, our team uncovered that Comcast added charges to a consumer’s bill without their consent in 36 percent of the sample calls we reviewed.”
Ferguson’s office conducted an investigation of the communications between Comcast employees and customers about the Service Protection Plan, and the findings compelled the state to seek more than $100 million in penalties plus refunds to each of Comcast’s Washington customers who were signed up for the plan.
Comcast balked at the damages the state is pursuing during opening arguments Monday, calling them “inappropriate.” In addition to questioning the methodology of Ferguson’s investigation, Comcast claimed that its training, communications, and policies were set up to ensure that customers knew what they were getting with the Service Protection Plan. The telecom giant argued that a small number of violations of those policies by a few bad apples were properly handled internally.
“You will hear that at times, a Comcast employee here or there among the 4,000 customer service representatives serving Washington did not live up to the company standards,” Shapiro said. “Unfortunately, that happens. But the question here is not whether every single one of Comcast’s employees behaved perfectly … rather the question, under the law, is whether Comcast acted and operated reasonably.
Over the course of the trial, each side will debate whether a section of Washington’s Consumer Protection Law that allows for “practices which are reasonable in relation to the development and preservation of business” protects Comcast. The telecom giant will try to convince the court that while a small number of mistakes occurred here and there, that’s to be expected with such a large company.
In a motion filed with the court, the state argued that Comcast’s violations were far more sweeping. The document says that the company regularly signed customers up for the Service Protection Plan without their consent and misled them about the terms, “netting Comcast millions in unlawful profits.”
“My team is in court fighting for Washington consumers,” Ferguson said.