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October 18, 1999

Psychology professor testifies in Y2K court case

By Jennifer McNulty

If you think that new computer you bought is Y2K compliant, check again.

That advice comes from Anthony Pratkanis, a professor of psychology at UCSC, who is testifying in a high-profile court case in which plaintiffs are charging that major computer retailers like Circuit City and Staples are misleading consumers about the Y2K-readiness of their products.

"Basically, consumers think computers and software will continue to work after the first of the year," said Pratkanis. "The lawsuit alleges that is not necessarily the case, even with computers and software being sold today, because some products are still not Y2K compliant."

An expert on consumer psychology, Pratkanis conducted a survey of consumer attitudes for the plaintiff's attorneys in Johnson v. Circuit City Store, Inc., et al.

Filed in Superior Court in Contra Costa County in January, the lawsuit originally named seven retailers: Circuit City, CompUSA, Office Max, The Good Guys, Staples, Fry's Electronics, and Office Depot. In June, Office Depot became the first defendant to settle; Fry's followed suit and settled out of court in September.

The lawsuit claims that the retailers are failing to warn customers of potential Y2K problems in the products they sell. Pratkanis is one of two experts in the case. A computer expert from the University of Texas at Austin is testifying that certain products are not Y2K compliant, including Windows 98. For his part, Pratkanis has submitted written testimony asserting that consumers in California are unaware of the problem and think that if a retailer is offering a product for sale in 1999, it will work a few months later in the year 2000.

As part of its settlement, which included a cash settlement, Fry’s has agreed to train its employees on Y2K issues and disclosures, post "prominent" signs, and pass out brochures on how consumers can contact computer and software manufacturers to confirm that products are Y2K compliant. Office Depot agreed to warn consumers that some computer products it sells may not work properly after December 31, 1999.

In July, Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Trembath denied the retailers' request to include software manufacturers as defendants in the class action, but the defendants successfully removed the lawsuit to federal court in what likely sets the stage for the first attempt to invoke a new federal law limiting year 2000 lawsuits (the "Y2K Act," Public Law No. 10637).

Plaintiff Tom Johnson's attorneys argue that the defendants are misrepresenting the Y2K-readiness of the products they sell, as well as misinforming consumers about the least expensive means of achieving Y2K-readiness. Such business practices create a false sense of Y2K-readiness among California consumers, according to the plaintiff's attorneys, who cite Pratkanis's expert testimony in their arguments.

Read Pratkanis' testimony
(This file is accessible only with Adobe Acrobat Reader. Download a free copy.)

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