Surprising way to make your community healthier

  • Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014 10:00 p.m., Updated: Monday, March 10, 2014 10:43 p.m.

If you've ever gotten one of those official-looking class-action lawsuit letters in your mailbox, you know the drill. Step 1: Rip it open. Think, "Hey, looks like some corporation ran afoul of something and owes me big money!" Step 2: Wade through the legalese to discover that, shucks, you might qualify for a settlement, but it's so small that it wouldn't buy a gallon of gas. Step 3: Toss it. (Sigh.)

Ever wonder what happens to unclaimed cash left on the table after a company settles a big lawsuit with a large group of people?

It can amount to tens of millions of dollars. In most of the U.S., it usually goes back to the company or person accused of cheating or causing harm in the first place. But it doesn't have to.

In 11 states, this unclaimed money is fueling better health, better schools, food banks, housing and legal assistance for those in need. We think that's the way it should be everywhere! And now, it can be.

A pioneering movement based in Dr. Mike's hometown (we're talking about you, Cleveland!) is urging lawyers in Ohio and beyond to lead the charge. We're so inspired that we're devoting this week's column to this exciting project, and we hope you share it with friends, family and especially with any attorneys you know.

Patrick Perotti, a partner in the northeast Ohio law firm of Dworken & Bernstein, got the ball rolling several years ago when he discovered that there were hundreds of thousands of dollars left over in one of his first consumer class-action lawsuits.

Wielding a legal concept called "cy pres," which means "as near as possible," he argued that the funds should go to charity. They did, and he vowed never to settle a class action without considering the use of cy pres for unclaimed funds.

That was just the beginning. Perotti and his partners founded Ohio Lawyers Give Back to help spread the word about this health-promoting doctrine and to encourage other attorneys at other firms to do the same thing.

The group estimates that $500 million in class-action settlement money goes uncollected each year across the U.S. because only 2 percent of people who can make claims in class-action suits bother to file all of the paperwork.

To date, Perotti has distributed more than $25 million to more than 187 groups that help fight and prevent heart disease, cystic fibrosis, vision loss, muscular dystrophy, foot problems, leukemia, cerebral palsy, autism, diabetes, alcoholism and more.

Kids have been the big winners, with funds going to help a children's hospital, a kids' emergency room, schools, after-school programs, projects that provide warm clothing and shoes, and programs for pregnant women and mothers with new babies, too.

Want to help? Make your state a "Smart State."

If you live in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee or Washington, according to the National Law Journal, rules direct lawyers to make plans upfront for this unspent money, usually earmarking it for legal aid or charities. But in the rest of the states, there usually are no provisions.

So if you don't live in one of the smart states, spread the word; and if you're a lawyer, our friends at Ohio Lawyers Give Back can help you reclaim and redirect leftover funds from class-action suits you've worked on. That'll make your community stronger, healthier and happier.

If you try to make this a state law, you probably will run into resistance. Opposition by the Chamber of Commerce is why this smart idea was not enacted as law yet in Ohio (according to one key politician we spoke with). But even where it is not a law, each plaintiff's lawyer can insist on such a community-building resolution. And lawyers won't earn an extra dime by doing this, but the rewards are priceless.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Visit www.sharecare.com.

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