Riled Up Over Resort Fees
My husband, Gary, has a long list of pet peeves. (Don't we all?) Here are just a few of them:
* Bad cell-phone reception.
* The difficulties of making travel reservations online. The hotel/airline/car rental company's computers invariably crash just after entering all the necessary information but before the reservation is final.
* The promotional phrase "free gift." What's a gift if it's not free?
* Commercials before movies.
* Meaningless computerized phone messages, like "Your call is very important to us." Here's his comment on that: "How do they know why I'm calling? It might not be important to them at all. And if it were so important they'd staff the phones adequately so my "important" call got handled in an important manner.
* And invariably on vacation, what really gets him mumbling and grumbling are the "resort fees" many hotels add onto the bill to cover the cost of pool towels, newspapers and other "essentials" that used to be included as part of the overall bill.
So, Gary was pleased when he recently received a notice saying he was part of a proposed class-action settlement with Starwood Hotels because he may have been charged a resort fee without adequate notice. The fee varied from hotel to hotel, but ranged from $3 to $18, the settlement said.
"It's about time," Gary said when he read the notice.
Then he read the fine print. He stands to get two certificates, each worth $14 off his next stay at one of the participating Starwood resorts. Of course, these resorts are not cheap, so he figures he'd have to spend several hundred dollars to take advantage of his $28 settlement. His thoughts on the settlement are unprintable.
The Federal Trade Commission and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a nonprofit public-interest firm, have long complained about coupon settlements, questioning their real worth to consumers. So I asked TLPJ staff attorney Michael Quirk about the settlement. Since he didn't know about all the specifics, he only talked about coupon settlements in general: Usually, he said, they only serve consumers when they offer dollars off existing accounts. And the less restrictive, the better. However, he added, coupon settlements are not as advantageous if consumers are first required to buy big-ticket items. Then the coupons may become a source of profits for the company for alleged wrongdoing, Quirk said.
New York attorney Peter D. Morgenstern, the lead attorney representing the Starwood plaintiffs, referred all questions to the legal papers filed in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs allege that Starwood engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices by failing to provide adequate notice of the resort fees. Starwood denies the allegations but said it agreed to settle to avoid protracted litigation. The legal documents note that each class member stands to get two certificates, with a face vaue of either $8 or $14, depending on where they stayed. That amounts to at least 63 percent of the typical amount of resort fees paid per stay, the legal papers say. "This is more than adequate compensation under the law of California [where the case was filed] and other jurisdictions." The documents say 2.28 million consumers are potential beneficiaries, with certificates having a total face value of more than $40.4 million. Of course, it's uncertain how many of those certificates will be cashed in.
How much do the plaintiff attorneys get? No more than $545,000 in fees and costs. "The proposed settlement does not provide for excessive attorneys' fees," the legal papers say.
California Superior Court Judge Jonathon H. Cannon has scheduled a hearing on the settlement for June 8.
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