911 districts involved in federal lawsuit against BellSouth:
Source: Court documents
A federal judge offered three options Wednesday for how a potential $27 million lawsuit by 10 area 911 districts against BellSouth could proceed.
U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier opened the short meeting with a quick observation: "I understand mediation was not successful."
So begins scheduling for a trial sometime next year.
Collier gave attorneys three options to get the case to trial:
• Consolidate all 10 cases into one.
• Pick one district, likely Hamilton County, to try one case so lawyers will have an idea of how the others could play out.
• Try each case individually.
Lawyers for both sides met for two days recently but failed to agree whether the phone company had done anything wrong or what it should pay if it had.
"The court case really comes down to the number of lines we did bill or didn't bill," Henry Walker, attorney for BellSouth, told the judge. "We'd like to settle these cases, but we don't have a blank checkbook."
The lawsuit revolves around whether the phone company charged customers for mandatory 911 fees, which fund 911 district operations. Attorneys for the districts claimed untold numbers of residential and business lines should have been charged but weren't. They claim the practice dates back at least 10 years.
Attorneys for the districts have asked for triple damages. Depending on the outcome of the cases and the ultimate number of lines counted, an award of between $13.5 million and $27 million is possible.
But what sounds simple has gotten complicated. Hamilton County 911 filed the first lawsuit in November 2011. Since then nine other districts, the largest of which is Knox County, have filed similar lawsuits.
In that time at least two counties, Davidson and Lincoln, have settled out of court. Davidson settled for $1 million, Lincoln for $13,361, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.
When lawyers asked to set deadlines in January for filings and the exchange of evidence, known as discovery, Collier wanted to know why it should take so long.
Attorneys Frederick Hitchcock and Tom Greenhotlz, representing the districts, told the judge much of the delay is because they haven't received all the requested information from BellSouth.
But Walker said the company has searched 14 million documents and provided more than 30,000 to the districts' attorneys.
Collier set Dec. 15, 2013, as the discovery deadline and Jan. 30, 2014, as the deadline for summary-judgment arguments. A summary judgment offers the judge a chance to rule on legal questions before a trial, and can resolve all concerns.
Once that's completed, a trial date likely will be set.
Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.