When two salespeople knocked on Ruby Carter's door at 10 o'clock on a spring night three years ago, they offered the Mississippi woman what sounded like a good deal to her - a digital satellite dish for only $19 per month.
The problem is that the 83-year-old woman's loan from Illinois-based Amcore Financial Inc. was structured so that her payments would not cover each month's interest, much less make a dent in the $1,500 that she later discovered she had been charged for the now-broken equipment. The widow, who lives on $6,000 per year from Social Security, now questions whether she will ever pay off the dish, which Kmart recently advertised for $99. "I made a mark of myself," said Ms. Carter, who lives in Beulah, "but the way they described it, it just sounded so good."
Now she and five other rural Mississippi residents want their creditors to pay.
They are seeking $630 million in compensatory and punitive damages from the consumer-finance arm of Amcore, a $4.4 billion-asset banking company in Rockford, Ill.; Carmel Financial Corp., an Indianapolis finance company; and Delta TV Corp. of Yazoo, Miss., a defunct electronics dealer who supplied the equipment.
"It's not right for companies to trick somebody into buying their product by not explaining how much they'll really have to pay for it," said Suzanne Griggins Keys, the Jackson, Miss., attorney representing Ms. Carter and the other plaintiffs. "Financing is a difficult enough topic to understand that you don't entrust a door-to-door salesman to explain it to an uneducated person in a rural area."
In a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Amcore said it believes the case is without merit, and that it would not set aside funds to cover potential damages because the claims are "disproportionate" to any alleged financial injury the plaintiffs suffered.
Still, recent history shows consumer finance companies - though not directly involved in selling - have been held liable for deceptive practices in the sale of satellite dishes and other consumer products.
A.G. Financial Service Center Inc., a subsidiary of Evansville, Ind.,-based American General Finance Inc., was ordered by a Mississippi judge to pay $167.7 million last year after the judge found that the company had acted fraudulently in satellite-dish financing. A.G. Financial later filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code.
And $2.4 billion-asset Bank Plus Corp. of Los Angeles was slapped with similar lawsuits in Mississippi and Alabama for its alleged role in financing vacuum cleaners sold door to door. The company this year set aside about $4 million to settle the cases.
Ms. Keys claims that Amcore stood to "make a bunch of money" by funneling loans indirectly through Delta TV and Carmel Financial to Mississippi consumers. She contends that the defendants violated state fraud and deceptive-practices laws by allowing independent salespeople affiliated with intermediary businesses to go door-to-door with finance applications in hand peddling "overpriced equipment."
Representing other plaintiffs, Ms. Keys said she has filed similar satellite-dish suits against finance units of General Electric Co., Bank One Corp., and First Tennessee National Corp. Those cases are in pretrial motions, she said.
Amcore's attorney in Mississippi questioned the case's merits and how the plaintiffs could claim they are entitled to $630 million when the equipment they purchased cost a fraction of that.
"It's unfortunate that it's become standard practice to ask for astronomical sums regardless of the facts of the case," said Collins Wohner, who practices law in Jackson. "I can't admire this about the legal system."
David B. Moore, a Chicago analyst with Podesta & Co., said he believes Amcore should not be held at fault, because its representatives were not the ones in the field explaining the credit terms. Nevertheless, he suggested that banks involved in such matters should resolve them quickly.
"It's better to settle and get the case behind you rather than litigate it forever," said Mr. Moore, who covers both Amcore and Bank Plus.
The suit is awaiting a Mississippi judge's decision on whether the case should be heard in a federal court or in Humphreys County, where it was filed.