California judge okays Microsoft class-action suit

A California judge has ruled that a class-action suit filed on behalf of consumers against Microsoft can proceed to trial - but the trial will not begin until March of 2002.

          A California judge has ruled that a class-action suit filed on behalf of consumers against Microsoft can proceed to trial. The suit alleges that Microsoft's monopoly in the desktop software market harmed Californian consumers.

          San Francisco Superior Court Judge Stuart R. Pollak late Tuesday ruled that the suit could proceed. Attorneys representing Microsoft and the plaintiffs will meet with Pollak Oct. 4 for a status conference, but the trial will not begin until March of 2002.

          Richard Grossman, a lawyer with Townsend & Townsend & Crew, a San Francisco-based law firm, said millions of California consumers overpaid Microsoft, and the judge's decision to allow the suit to go ahead is a major step toward gaining a remedy for them.

          "We have not calculated the precise amount that consumers overpaid, but it's expected to be in the many hundreds of millions if not billions of (U.S.) dollars," Grossman said in a telephone interview Wednesday. The overcharge will be calculated based on intensive studies by expert economists in the antitrust field, he added.

          Microsoft's Windows and MS-DOS operating systems software and the company's Word and Excel applications purchased after May 18, 1994, are the products at issue in the case.

          Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan Wednesday said Judge's Pollak's decision was just one step in a long process.

          "Given California law, yesterday's ruling was not unexpected," Cullinan said. "The ruling focuses not on the merits (of the case) but on the issue of class certification. We believe when you look at the merits, the actions that have been challenged will be seen as having been good for consumers."

          Cullinan also noted that the case has been filed by plaintiff attorneys, not consumers themselves.

          More than 130 private, class-action antitrust suits have been filed across the U.S. against Microsoft, all seeking damages from the company for what the plaintiffs claim are inflated prices charged for its products.

          Earlier this month, Microsoft filed a motion for the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland to dismiss more than half of 62 private, class-action antitrust lawsuits that have been consolidated and placed under the court's review.

          Judges elsewhere in the U.S. have already dismissed a number of private antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft in U.S. states including Oregon and Nevada.

          US District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered the breakup of Microsoft on June 7 after determining that the software giant was a monopoly. Jackson has said Microsoft's appeal against his ruling should go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court for immediate consideration because of the "general public importance" of resolving the case, but Microsoft has argued that the appeal should be heard by the US Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court is expected to decide within a few weeks whether it will take the case.

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