You Can Help Make Your Community Healthier

You Can Help Make Your Community Healthier

If you’ve ever gotten one of those official-looking class-action lawsuit letters in your mailbox, you know the drill:

Step 1: Rip it open… Hey, looks like some corporation ran afoul of something and owes you big money!

Step 2: Wade through the legalese to discover that... shucks, you might qualify for a settlement…but it’s so small it wouldn’t buy a gallon of gas.

Step 3: Toss it. (Sigh.)

Redirecting Unclaimed Cash
Ever wonder what happens to unclaimed cash left on the table after a company settles a big suit with a large group of people? It can amount to tens of millions of dollars. In most of the U.S., it usually goes right back to the company or person accused of cheating or causing harm in the first place. But it doesn’t have to.

In 11 states, this unclaimed money is going to local communities to fuel better health, better schools, food banks, housing and legal assistance for those in need. We think that’s the way it should be everywhere! And now, it can be.

A pioneering movement based in Dr. Mike’s hometown (we’re talking about you, Cleveland!) is urging lawyers (yup, lawyers) in Ohio and beyond to lead the charge. We’re so inspired we’re devoting this week’s column to this exciting community project -- and we hope you share it with friends, family and especially with any attorneys you know.

Patrick Perotti, a partner in the NE Ohio law firm of Dworken & Bernstein, got the ball rolling several years ago when he discovered there were hundreds of thousands of dollars leftover in one of  his first consumer class action lawsuits. Wielding a legal concept called “cy pres” (pronounced sigh-PRAY), which means as near as possible, he argued the funds should go to charity. They did, and he vowed never to settle a class action without considering the use of cy pres for unclaimed funds.  

Lawyers Who Give Back
That was just the beginning. Patrick Perotti and his partners founded Ohio Lawyers Give Back to help spread the word about this community health promoting doctrine and encourage other attorneys at other firms to do the same thing. The group estimates that $500 million in class-action settlement money goes uncollected each year across the U.S. because only 2 percent of people who can make claims in class-action suits bother to file all the paperwork!

To date, Mr. Perotti has distributed more than $25 million to more than 187 groups that help fight and prevent heart disease, cystic fibrosis, vision loss, muscular dystrophy, foot problems, leukemia, cerebral palsy, autism, diabetes, alcoholism and more. Kids have been the big winners, with funds going to help a children’s hospital, a kids’ emergency room, schools, after-school programs, projects that provide warm clothing and shoes, and programs for pregnant women and mothers with new babies, too. Want to help?  

Make your state a “Smart State”
If you live in one of 11 smart states -- California, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Washington, according to the National Law Journal -- rules direct lawyers to make plans upfront for this unspent money, usually earmarking it for legal aid or charities. But in the rest of the states there are usually no provisions.

So if you don’t live in one of the smart states, spread the word; and if you’re a lawyer, our friends atOhio Lawyers Give Back can help you reclaim and redirect left-over funds from class-action suits you’ve worked on. That’ll make your community stronger, healthier and happier. 

By the way, if you try to make this a state law, you will probably run into resistance. Opposition by the Chamber of Commerce is why this smart idea was not enacted as law yet in Ohio, according to one key politician we spoke with.  But even where it is not a law, each plaintiff’s lawyer can insist on such a community health-building resolution. And lawyers won’t earn an extra dime by doing this…but the rewards are priceless.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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