Comcast fined $9.1M for consumer protection violations in high-profile Washington state case

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Judge Timothy Bradshaw delivered the ruling in King County Superior Court in Seattle on Thursday. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

A judge ordered Comcast Corp. to pay $9.1 million in penalties for violating Washington state’s Consumer Protection Act — a fraction of the amount that the Washington State Attorney General had previously sought in the civil case.

At a hearing Thursday afternoon in downtown Seattle, King County Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw ruled that Comcast signed customers up for a monthly maintenance plan without their consent and misrepresented the monthly cost associated with it, practices that affected nearly 50,000 customers. The company was fined $6,014,700 for the consent issue and $3,078,900 for the recurring charges claim, based on a per-violation charge of $25 and $15, respectively.

In addition to the $9.1 million awarded to the state, Judge Bradshaw said the company will also be required to pay refunds directly to Comcast customers who were affected by the sales tactics. The amounts of those refunds and the number of customers is not yet clear.

Attorneys for the state of Washington argued earlier this year for a $171 million fine against Comcast, which would have included $88 million in restitution for consumers and $83 million in civil penalties for alleged consumer protection violations, plus attorney fees. Those sums made the case one of the state’s biggest consumer protection lawsuits in recent history.

“Comcast’s operations involved widespread telephone sales agents’ recalcitrance and overreach, but also a nucleus of company good faith,” Judge Bradshaw said during the hearing and in his written ruling.

Comcast’s 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.  Bradshaw denied the state attorneys’ other claims of deception related to the Comcast Guarantee, as well as a request for reimbursement of attorney fees.

Barring an appeal, the judgment brings to a close a drama that began in August 2016, when Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson first filed the complaint. In 2017, Comcast instituted new processes related to obtaining consent from its customers.

“We’re pleased that the Court ruled in our favor on several of the Attorney General’s key claims and awarded less than five percent of what he was seeking in damages,” a Comcast spokesperson said in an email to GeekWire. “The Judge recognized that any issues he did find have since been fully addressed by Comcast through the significant investments we have made in improving the customer experience and consent process, and that throughout Comcast acted in good faith.”

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement, “Instead of making things right for Washingtonians, Comcast sent an army of corporate lawyers into court to try to avoid accountability. My legal team demonstrated that we’re capable of meeting the world’s largest corporations in court – and winning.”

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, center, announces the lawsuit at a news conference in 2016. Assistant Attorney Generals Dan Davies (left) and Joel Delman stand behind him. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The Attorney General’s Office said the ruling was the largest consumer protection award given to Washington state as a result of trial. Previously, the largest was $4.3 million in penalties resulting from a lawsuit against the makers of 5-hour Energy.

Judge Bradshaw noted that the Consumer Protection Act revolves around the idea of deception, but that lawmakers had not defined the word. In a bit of levity at the start of the proceedings, he rattled off several synonyms — from bamboozle to hornswoggle — before concluding: “I’m declining to adopt any of those particular words.”

Judge Bradshaw also compared the arguments of the two sides to the parable of the blind men and the elephant, in which several people come to vastly different conclusions of what the animal looks like based on the part of the elephant they touch.

“The defense offered testimony that Comcast considers itself one of the best companies in the world,” he said. “The assistant attorney general called the defendant company dishonest, gutless, hypocritical, shoddy, deceptive, engaged in cavalier and trickery.”

“I’m trying to make the point,” he said, “that perceptions here are vastly different.”

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