Class Action Judgment to Benefit Florida Legal Aid Agencies

(CN) – Several Florida legal aid organizations will split more than $1.5 million from a recent class action lawsuit on Wednesday as part of a judgment against Heritage Propane for improperly charging Floridians rent for propane tanks.

Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge Pamela Campbell ordered the “cy pres” award in February. In cases where class action members do not claim all funds after a judgment, the court can give the remaining money to a charitable organization that reflects the intent of the lawsuit.

In addition to the legal aid agencies, Judge Campbell allocated $1.5 million to the Salvation Army to help clients with their utility bills and other initiatives, $500,000 to the Florida Bar Foundation and $100,000 to the Florida Justice Association Research and Education Foundation.

“Every dollar counts for us,” said Dennis Harrison, chief development officer for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, which will receive more than $90,000. “[The money] helps the homeless, keeps people out of shelters and helps folks in mortgage foreclosure.  The city itself benefits from this money,” he said.

Harrison pointed to a 2016 study by the Florida Bar Foundation that found every $1 of funding to legal aid groups results in over $7 of cost savings and benefits to families.

The cy pres award stems from a 2005 lawsuit brought by Alfred Williams against Heritage Propane, now Amerigas, after the company began charging rental fees on his underground propane tank purchased years earlier. In his complaint, Williams asserted the original sales contract made no mention of rental fees and Heritage Propane’s new charges violated Florida law. Judge Campbell certified the class action for 70,000 Florida customers and after 12 years of litigation, the plaintiffs won a $21 million judgment.

Jeffrey Liggio, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said $7.7 million went to Floridians affected by the tank rental fees.

“They all got back 100 percent of what they lost,” he said.

But the propane company did not keep accurate customer records, he said, so some of the funds went unclaimed.

Liggio praised the judge’s decision to distribute the remaining funds to organizations “providing counseling and legal representation to some of the less fortunate in our state.”

“We think this is marvelous,” he said.

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