ST. LOUIS • A federal judge here Thursday awarded $32.4 million to a St. Louis County couple and 3.2 million others who improperly received robocalls in 2012.
U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber could have awarded $1.6 billion, or $500 per call, under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but wrote “the amount of damages prescribed by the statute are so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportionate to the offense and obviously unreasonable.”
Webber wrote in his ruling that the $32 million penalty, or $10 per call, “reflects the severity of the offense” and one of the purposes of the TCPA — to have a “deterrent effect and to account for unquantifiable losses including the invasions of privacy, unwanted interruptions and disruptions at home, and the wasted time spent answering unwanted solicitation calls or unwanted voice messages.”
The calls went out to promote the “Last Ounce of Courage,” a movie about “faith, family and freedom” that opened Sept. 14, 2012. More than 3.2 million of the calls violated the act by going to people who had not consented to the calls, Webber has ruled.
Ron and Dorit Golan, of St. Louis County, received two calls that went to voicemail. They are on the Do Not Call registry. They sued in 2012 and came to represent the class of call recipients.
Webber ruled during a trial in U.S. District Court in St. Louis last month that Gabriel Joseph III, of Virginia, and his affiliated companies had violated the act, but withheld a ruling on damages. Those companies, AIC Communications LLC and Freeeats.com Inc., do business as ccAdvertising.
A jury then found in favor of James R. Leininger, a billionaire Texas doctor, philanthropist and Republican donor who is a part owner of the San Antonio Spurs.
Leininger sank $10 million into the marketing of the movie, part of which went to fund the robocall campaign, but jurors found that Leininger did not have the necessary control over the robocall campaign to be held liable for it.
Former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the voice of the campaign, and testified during the trial that he did not talk to Leininger about it. Huckabee had been dismissed from the suit long before his testimony.
At an Aug. 29 hearing, lawyer Teresa Young suggested a penalty of 10 cents per call.
Joseph believed he had consent to call the households in the campaign and had never had a TCPA violation or complaint, Young told Webber. He also believed that there was 45 seconds of political information “before you ever got to a commercial,” meaning the movie promotion.
She also said Joseph’s two companies were unlikely to have any money, as they are going out of business.
Golan lawyer Kevin Carnie Jr. responded that Webber did not have discretion to reduce the $500 per call award, citing other similar court cases.
He said the actual harm was not pertinent to the issue, but the greater harm to the public of the proliferation of millions and millions of robocalls.
“This practice has to be made unaffordable,” he told Webber.
Carnie, by phone Thursday, said that he was “pleased” with the verdict.
But he also said that the plaintiffs would appeal both Webber’s reduction of the $500 per call penalty in the TCPA and jury instructions during the trial concerning Leininger’s role in the campaign.
“We believe that he personally participated in and authorized the telephone campaign,” Carnie said.
Young could not immediately be reached for comment.