Consumer protection research gets boost from new funding

A landmark class-action lawsuit has created a new funding opportunity for University of Oregon research aimed at helping and protecting consumers.

A new research fund has been established using a share of a $400 million jury verdict in what’s known as the ARCO debit card case, Scharfstein v. BP West Coast Products LLC. The UO was chosen to receive $3 million over 10 years based on the breadth of its research programs and ability to address issues affecting consumers in Oregon.

The lawsuit resulted in 1.7 million people, mostly in Oregon, receiving unexpected checks for $91.94 last summer with the promise of a second check, in the same amount, later this year. Each had been charged unauthorized fees when they used debit cards to pay for gas at the company’s ARCO and ARCO am/pm gas stations between January 2011 and August 2013.

However, $66 million was left unclaimed because hundreds of thousands of cards could not be traced to their owners. Oregon law mandates that unclaimed jury awards must benefit consumers rather than being returned to the corporation that harmed them. Enter the UO.

In making the case for awarding some of the unclaimed money to support research at the UO, law professor Liz Tippett and former law dean Michael Moffitt gave the court several examples of research already under way throughout the university.

“It was those practical examples, I think, that made the difference,” Tippett said. “The court wanted to bring the power of the University of Oregon to approach a problem from many different disciplinary angles.”

Tippett said the UO will receive a minimum of $300,000 for each of the next 10 years for consumer research having a direct Oregon connection. Faculty members and students are encouraged to begin applying for the first round of research funds.

“To move the needle on a problem this big, you have to make a large investment,” she said. “The research grants we will be funding will make that possible.”

Tippett chairs the committee that will award grants from the university’s new Consumer Protection Research Fund. Members include representatives from academic units throughout the UO and three experts appointed by Oregon Consumer Justice, the consumer advocacy nonprofit established with unclaimed funds from the same lawsuit.

She said the committee wants to support research that may already be in progress, incubate future research, and connect with historically underserved and excluded communities to make sure their needs are addressed. Proposals may address one or more of the following goals:

  • Inform and influence case law and legislation relating to consumers.
  • Inform policies that would promote a fair marketplace for consumers.
  • Provide insight into consumer needs, harms or inequities at a community level, or test community interventions to address those issues.
  • Shed light on behavior or decision-making by individual consumers, or test interventions to address harms to individuals.

“I think a lot of good will come this,” Tippett said. “I am really excited to see what people are working on.”

All UO faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and current UO undergraduate and graduate students are eligible to apply for grants from the university’s new Consumer Protection Research Fund. To qualify, proposals must have an Oregon connection. Feb. 25 is the application deadline for the 2021-22 year. For details, visit the Consumer Protection Research Grant website.

—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications