An Alaska judge ruled Wednesday that the Fred Meyer grocery chain violated Alaska law by charging people $5 to $15 extra for car battery and other battery purchases, claiming that a nonexistent state law required them to do so.
Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby said in her decision that the chain broke the law by collecting the money "under the guise of a state law requirement."
Jeffery Temple, Fred Meyer director of corporate affairs, said he is certain a placard citing the law was posted in error, because the chain follows the law in the four states it operates.
"Our goal is to be responsible retailers," he said.
The lawsuit arose in 2016 after the store on Abbott Road in Anchorage posted a placard stating that Alaska law requires the collection of at least $5 for a "core charge" if a customer does not return an old battery for exchange when buying a new one.
Such costs are required in some states to promote battery recycling, including other states where Fred Meyer operates. But not in Alaska.
The judge found the placard to be "deceptive."
More than 2,500 Alaskans were cheated, said Jim Davis, an attorney representing the group that brought the lawsuit, Consumer Research and Protection Inc.
Davis, with Northern Justice Project, a civil-rights law firm, described the consumer protection group as a small "ma and pa" outfit created a few years ago in Alaska.
Alicia Martinez is head of the group, Davis said. She paid the store $107 for a car battery in October 2016, and was required to pay an extra $15 for the "core charge." Martinez at the time had already founded the group, said Davis.
Crosby on Wednesday also set a timeline for arguments from both sides on whether she will certify the case as a class-action lawsuit, potentially leading to repayment for the customers, said Davis.
Briefs on that question must be filed by June 14, he said.
On top of requiring Fred Meyer to reimburse customers for the amount they overpaid, the judge could add up to a $500 penalty that would be rewarded to each customer, Davis said.
Fred Meyer officials have said the chain installed the placard in its stores around April 2015, but were uncertain if the signs had been placed in all stores, according to testimony filed in the case. The placards were removed in early 2017, shortly after the lawsuit was filed.