Judge in N.J. Finds Judgments Excessive

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Comcast Corp.’s anti-piracy efforts were dealt a setback by a federal court judge in New Jersey, who ruled the operator has been seeking excessive judgments against individual buyers of doctored set-tops.

Not only did U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson Debevoise decline on April 28 to award $163,259 in damages and costs in the lawsuit brought before him, he directed Comcast and its outside counsel, Wayne Lonstein, to vacate more than $670,000 in judgments the operator had already been awarded against seven defendants in the district.

Debevoise made his ruling in a case against a West Orange, N.J., man, Noel Adubato, who never responded to the demand for payment from Comcast, or to subsequent summonses.

A Comcast spokesperson said the company takes thefts of service seriously and will continue to work to ensure the operator is compensated for the services it sells.

Comcast is reviewing this case to determine the appropriate next step.

The judge acknowledged that Comcast “is plagued by the proliferation” of manufacturers and distributors of illegal descramblers. But he also felt Comcast had changed from victim to victimizer through improper application of federal anti-piracy law.

The law caps recovery from private users at $10,000. But Comcast’s suits sought to apply commercial penalties to private users, arguing their illegal purchases equated to a conspiracy with the seller.

Until this judge looked more closely at the law and legal precedents, Comcast had convinced other judges to order penalties as high as $143,733.20.

“Comcast, frustrated by the proliferation of pirate decoders, wishes to make the individual defendant atone for all the damage caused by many thieves who remain uncaught,” the judge wrote in the April 28 ruling, also asserting that Comcast, through its attorney, tried to “hornswoggle” the court by leaving out previous rulings that the commercial piracy section of the Cable Act (Section 605) doesn’t apply to individual users.

Prior to the ruling, Lonstein began to amend more than 200 anti-piracy claims pending which relied on the application of Section 605. Though seized dealer records supported the assertion that Adubato bought a pirate set-top, Debevoise declined to award any damages or attorney’s fees in the case before him.

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