CLRB Hanson v. Google Preliminarily Settles for $20M

By Eric Goldman

CLRB Hanson Industries v. Google, 5:05-cv-03649-JW (settlement papers filed March 26, 2009). The new case filings:

* The settlement motion

* The settlement agreement

* The proposed court order granting the settlement

My previous blog coverage of the case:

* my initial post from August 2005

* the August 2007 determination that advertisers were bound by the AdWords contract

* the May 2008 initial refusal to grant summary judgment to Google

* the December 2008 second refusal to grant summary judgment to Google

The long-running CLRB Hanson v. Google case (also referred to as the Howard Stern case because he is a named plaintiff), over Google’s alleged mishandling of budget caps set by its advertisers, has reached a proposed settlement. The settlement needs court approval, but I would be surprised if that didn’t occur in due course. Individual advertisers could choose to opt out of the settlement and pursue individual claims, but I expect few will find it economically rational to do so. In the extreme case, the deal could unravel if more than 5% of advertisers opt out of the class, but I would be shocked if this happened. As a result, I expect this development to substantially resolve the case.

The stated settlement price tag is $20M of cash. Plaintiffs’ counsel are likely to get $5.25M, the named plaintiffs are likely to get $20k each, and the $14.7M balance will go into a bank account. Google will provide AdWord credits for affected advertisers who are still advertising and have a balance due to Google, and Google will get cash back from the pot for any actual credits given to advertisers. It is unclear how much of the $14.7M Google will recoup this way. Or, advertisers can opt to receive cash instead for their putative harms. If less than $200k is left over after all this, the money will go to charity. If more than $200k is left over, the parties will go back to the judge to propose how to reallocate the remaining money to the class.

in my previous post on the case from December 2008, I wrote:

I suspect the case is still around because the parties can’t work out a deal on the attorney’s fees–which, if this situation is anything like the click fraud cases, almost certainly will dwarf any actual monetary relief received by the putatively injured advertisers. If the parties can work out the plaintiff attorneys’ cut of the spoils, I’m confident this lawsuit will settle before trial

Seeing the size of this settlement, I’m not sure I called it right. Given the fairly narrow advertiser harms left open by the judge’s prior rulings, I expected the advertiser relief to be nominal (certainly less than $15M). Furthermore, unlike prior advertiser v. search engine lawsuits where advertiser credits were use-it-or-lose-it, Google could be out much of the $20M no matter what. In the end, Google probably will pay a lot more cash than I expected it would have to.

While Google can easily afford the dough, the settlement is a big enough sum to potentially attract further class action lawyers seeking their piece of the Google fortune. Contrast this with Google’s stance on patent lawsuits, where it has taken a hard line on settlements with the hope that its refusal to buy out lawsuits will discourage future weak patent claims from being asserted against it. However, the plaintiffs in this case had to work pretty hard–Google fought them for nearly 4 years–so it’s possible that the actual economic return for the plaintiffs’ lawyers for their four years of labor wasn’t especially lucrative.

I have lost track of the many lawsuits against Google, but I believe this settlement ends the 2005-era advertiser v. Google class actions. There may still be some individual click fraud claims, and there are other advertising-related lawsuits still pending (such as the Vulcan Golf and related/copycat lawsuits). Let’s hope this means that Google has improved its ability to keep advertisers happy.