KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Four weeks after reaching a proposed class-action settlement with several of the customers affected by alleged fraud in its fuel rebate program, Pilot Flying J's counsel is detailing the deal that’s currently on the table.
On July 16, the United States District Court in Little Rock granted preliminary approval to the consolidation and oversight of all class-action lawsuits filed against Pilot Flying J in conjunction with the federal investigation into the allegations. A fairness hearing is scheduled in Little Rock on Nov. 25, at which time many observers expect the court to give final approval to the settlement proposed in this case.
According to Nashville attorney Aubrey Harwell, senior partner of the law firm of Neal & Harwell, which represents Pilot Flying J in this matter, the attorneys representing a number of Pilot Flying J customers and the attorneys representing Pilot Flying J asked the federal court in Little Rock to consolidate all class-action lawsuits against Pilot Flying J into one suit with a proposed settlement. This was done in an effort to expedite any and all claims in the best interest of all parties, in the shortest amount of time and in the most cost-efficient manner.
The court defined the eligible class as any Pilot Flying J customer who bought over-the-road diesel fuel for commercial use from Pilot Flying J under a rebate or discount program between Jan. 1, 2005 and April 15, 2013.
"Simply stated, [the settlement] means every Pilot Flying J customer potentially owed an additional rebate or discount has an opportunity to be paid promptly and with minimum effort; every dollar plus interest," Harwell explained on Pilot Flying J's rebate education website, rebateeducation.pilotflyingj.com. "More specifically, the settlement states that all Pilot Flying J customers that are part of the class and stay in the class will have their accounts audited from Jan. 1, 2005 through July 15, 2013, at no cost to the class member. Each class member then will be paid 100 percent of the amount owed, plus 6 percent interest."
He added that a notice regarding the settlement was mailed to class members in early August. Detailed information about the settlement, as well as the settlement agreement and certain court documents, can also be found at www.DieselRebateSettlement.com.
According to Harwell, the United States District Court in Little Rock has made a preliminary finding that this settlement "appears to be fair, reasonable and adequate." Additionally, several plaintiffs and their lawyers have said that they think this settlement is fair and have agreed to it.
However, he stated that Pilot Flying J does not want any customer who is uncomfortable with the settlement to feel they have to participate.
Still, Pilot Flying J believes this is a good settlement for its customers and that they should participate because:
- It provides that all Pilot Flying J customers who are owed money will be paid quickly; every dollar owed plus interest.
- It provides a complete and fair review of each Pilot Flying J customer's account from 2005 forward.
- Pilot Flying J customers will know their accounts are being audited with court oversight, and they have options if they do not agree with the audit results.
- Pilot Flying J customers do not need to hire and pay a lawyer to receive any payment owed.
Any customer who does not agree with the settlement has two options. Under one option, a customer can opt out, even if the customer already has received and cashed a check from Pilot Flying J. The second option is to remain in the class action, but tell the court why they disagree with the settlement and ask the court not to approve it. The deadline for taking either of these steps is Oct. 15, Harwell said.
In addition, if a customer does not agree with Pilot Flying J's audit results, the customer can hire an accountant at its own cost to audit its account and can ask the court to change the payment amount based on the results of their accountant's review. As part of the settlement, an independent accountant has been preliminarily approved by the court. Audit results do not have to be challenged before Oct. 15.
"While I truly believe there is no downside, there are those who might suggest a downside is that a customer who participates in the settlement cannot also pursue its [own] claims in a separate lawsuit. Some also may argue that a customer has a chance to pursue additional damages not included in this settlement," Harwell said. "Those damages are uncertain and would require the expense of hiring a lawyer and the need to participate in a long, drawn-out legal process that could take years to conclude, with a possibility of achieving a net recovery (after fees and expenses) of less than that which will be paid to customers who participate in the settlement."
This settlement, he added, is "an extraordinary action on the part of the court, the plaintiffs and their lawyers, and Pilot Flying J to do 100 percent of what is right for Pilot Flying J's customers as soon as possible with the least costs and disruption to everyone's business as possible. It is historic in my experience as a lawyer and I'm very proud to be a part of it."
Pilot Flying J is a family-owned business that operates more than 650 retail locations and is the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America.