Charter Hit With Wire Fee Suit

A lawsuit challenging Charter Communications Inc.'s wire-maintenance and set-top policies has been certified as a class action by a South Carolina judge.

The suit — certified by 7th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Don Beatty in Spartanburg, S.C., on Jan. 16 — was filed by consumers angry that Charter's wire-maintenance plan was offered as a negative option, under which a subscriber is billed for the plan unless they specifically ask not to receive it.

Negative options became a legal nightmare for cable operators in 1993 and 1994, when attorney generals across the U.S. filed suit, claiming MSOs were packaging services such as video and wire-maintenance programs without informing consumers the products could be purchased on an individual basis — or declined.

The South Carolina plaintiffs claim they were not told they could refuse the wire maintenance fees.

Michael Spears, attorney for the plaintiffs, termed Charter's wire-maintenance plan "a worthless service."

His suit covers approximately 250,000 consumers in South Carolina, but could spread nationwide. That's because the lawyer has filed a similar action in Georgia, which would allow for such a suit to become a national class action, he said.

David Andersen, Charter's vice president of corporate communications, said that because the suit has been certified as a class action that he could not discuss it, except to say the company would vigorously defend itself.

"The merits have been decided: they lost it," asserted Spears, who represents plaintiffs Nikki Nicholls and Geraldine Barber in the South Carolina suit.

Following the early 1990s controversy, operators generally dropped bundling and stepped up information campaigns on billing policies.

In his action, Spears also claims that Charter misled consumers into believing they still needed an analog converter if they bought a new, cable-ready TV set. Also, basic-only customers were told that they had to switch out analog set-tops for $3-higher digital ones after a plant upgrade, Spears claimed.

The next step will be notifying class members and holding hearings to determine how much they will seek in damages.

South Carolina law limits class members to state residents, so Spears said he also sued over the wire maintenance and set-top policies in state court in Athens, Ga. The Georgia suit, in state Superior Court, lists Emma S. Tobar as plaintiff, according to a federal court docket.

Andersen said he was unaware of the Georgia suit-ing.