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Bills agree to $3 million settlement in fan’s text-message lawsuit

The Buffalo Bills have agreed to pay up to $3 million – largely in the form of debit cards redeemable only at the team store – to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused the team of sending too many alerts to fans who signed up for a text-messaging service.

Jerry Wojcik, a Bills fan and area native now living in Florida, contended in his October 2012 suit that the team violated the terms of its text service by sending him 13 messages over two weeks when it promised to send no more than five per week.

The lawsuit was panned as frivolous by some sports fans, media commentators and legal experts.

But in a settlement filed last week in federal court in Tampa, Fla., the Bills agreed to provide up to $2.5 million in debit cards to people who had signed up for the text service, along with $562,500 to Wojcik’s lawyers and $5,000 in cash to Wojcik as class representative.

The estimated value of the debit cards that will be issued to class members who received more than five alerts in a given week is $2,487,745. The cards can be used at the Bills store at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park or online at the team’s website. They can’t be redeemed for cash.

The debit cards are worth $57.50, $65 or $75, depending on which class tier a fan is assigned to, and the Bills said in a legal filing that an estimated 39,750 phone numbers had been registered through the now-defunct text-messaging service.

A motion that accompanied the settlement order argued that the offer of Bills debit cards was an appropriate form of settlement because the class consists of Bills fans.

“The Buffalo Bills have reached a settlement in this matter which we believe is in the best interest of our organization and our fans. The purpose of the Bills’ voluntary, opt-in text messaging program was to provide our fans with information they requested about the team. The organization maintains that our text messaging program was in compliance with the law,” Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold said in a statement Monday.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Bills promise to put in place “safeguards” to ensure any new service abides by limits set by the team on the number of messages.

Wojcik declined to comment when reached by The Buffalo News on Monday afternoon, citing his belief that he was unfairly criticized in local and national media after filing the suit, and referred a reporter to his attorneys.

“(The) plaintiff is pleased the court granted preliminary approval of the class settlement, which was only reached after substantial negotiations with the court-appointed mediator,” one of Wojcik’s attorneys, Keith J. Keogh of Chicago, said in an email. He declined to comment further.

Wojcik also was represented by lawyers James S. Giardina, of Tampa, and Scott D. Owens, of Hallandale, Fla.

A big Bills fan, Wojcik in September 2012 signed up for mobile text alerts from the team after visiting its website, according to his original lawsuit.

Language on the website promised fans who enrolled in the messaging service would receive three to five messages per week for 12 months.

Wojcik, however, said he received six messages during his second week in the program and seven messages during a later, one-week period.

He claimed in his suit that the extra texts violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and he sought statutory damages of $500 per excessive message for negligent violations and up to $1,500 per message for willful violations.

The settlement that received preliminary approval from U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday followed years of “hard-fought and often-times contentious” litigation, according to the settlement motion. A final hearing in the case is set for Aug. 20.

Buffalo attorney Jeffrey F. Reina and Tampa attorney Janelle A. Weber represented the team in the suit.

Once the deal receives final approval, an administrator will use a reverse-directory to send notices and claim forms by mail to the owners of the phone numbers registered for the messaging service.

The administrator also will set up a website offering details on the settlement.