PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Consumers expecting a payout in an antitrust class action against Comcast were set back on Thursday when a federal judge ruled that they had not adequately defined the settlement class.
The ruling frustrated relief of a 5-year-long case that claims the nation's largest cable company unlawfully forced buyers of its Premium Cable package to rent a proprietary cable box.
Comcast reached a settlement agreement with plaintiffs - including customers and some state governments - in August, and in September, the plaintiffs submitted the agreement's terms, which would provide from $5 in cash to four free months of Showtime (valued at $40) to class members, for a total payout capped at $15.5 million.
The proposed class member included residents of California, Washington or West Virginia who had subscribed to Premium Cable since 2005, or anyone in the country who subscribed during the same period and opted out of the company's arbitration clause in its user agreement.
But U.S. District Judge Anita Brody ruled Thursday that the class is not ascertainable, a linchpin in class definition, as there is insufficient evidence to determine whether claimants fall into the proposed category.
Plaintiffs proposed that class membership would be supported through Comcast's customer records or various indicia of their purchase of cable. But Brody found that such a class definition would not properly limit the number of claimants and would allow potential noncustomers to enter into the settlement.
"Although Comcast has represented that it may have records as far back as 2011 for some former subscribers, Comcast does not have records for any putative class members that ceased subscribing to Comcast during the six-year period from 2005 through 2010," Brody wrote. "To compensate for this absence of Comcast records, plaintiffs provide a laundry list of other possible types of evidence that former subscribers could submit to prove membership in the settlement class. Included in the list are police reports and insurance claims. It is implausible, however, that such evidence would ever demonstrate that an individual subscribed to Premium Cable from Comcast and rented a set-top box."
Plaintiffs also proposed submission of "proof of payment of rental fees" of the cable box, which Brody said "required no proof at all."
She refused to certify the settlement class or give preliminary approval.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.