A judge has allowed two suist against Caterpillar Inc. to be classified as class action suits

A federal judge has granted class action status to a pair of lawsuits filed against Caterpillar Inc. by a group of its retirees and surviving spouses of Caterpillar employees.


Thousands of retirees and surviving spouses will be affected by the ruling of Judge Aleta A. Trauger in U.S. District Court in Nashville, Tenn.


One lawsuit affects Caterpillar employees or surviving spouses of employees who retired between Jan. 1, 1992, and March 16, 1998.


There are more than 4,000 potential plaintiffs in that case, which was filed in March 2006 in Nashville by Gary Winnett, Freda Jackson-Chittum, Casper Harris, William Dailey, Calvin Grogan, Kenneth Hammer and Charles Waterfield, all of whom now live in Tennessee.


"We are very pleased the judge has ruled this way," said Michael Mulder of the Chicago law firm of Meites, Mulder, Mollica and Glink, which represents plaintiffs in that suit. The Nashville firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein LLP and the AARP also represent the plaintiffs.


The case is scheduled for trial in October 2008.


"We will proceed now to get health-care coverage restored for our clients at no charge to them," said Mulder, lead counsel in the case.


That case centers on the issue of whether those who retired between Jan. 1, 1992, and March 16, 1998, should be subject to terms of the contract between the company and the UAW that was ratified in October 1988.


In that contract and several contracts before, there were provisions calling for free lifetime health coverage for all eligible retirees and their dependents.


The 1988 contract expired in October 1991, but many of the terms of that contract remained in effect until a new agreement was ratified in March 1998.


The lawsuit contends the plaintiffs, since they retired before March 1998, were therefore still subject to the terms of the 1988 contract.


The other lawsuit was filed in April 2006 by Judith Kerns, Marcia Nalley and Sandra Stewart, surviving spouses of Caterpillar employees who retired between March 16, 1998, and Jan. 10, 2005.


Those plaintiffs are represented by the law firms of Godwin Morris Laurenzi & Bloomfield PC of Memphis, Tenn., and Klimist, McKnight, Sale McGlow & Canzano PC of Southfield, Mich. It is unknown how many potential plaintiffs there are in that case.


That case, set for trial in June 2008, focuses on employees who retired between March 16, 1998, and Jan. 10, 2005 — the dates of a contract between Caterpillar and the UAW. The lawsuit contends that contract states upon the death of the employee, surviving spouses would receive health coverage at no charge for the rest of their lives.


When the current contract between the union and company was ratified on Jan. 10, 2005, Caterpillar announced it would modify the contract provisions.


On April , 2006, Caterpillar began charging surviving spouses for the coverage.


The plaintiffs contend they were promised free coverage for life under the previous contract and that taking it away now breaches that agreement.


Caterpillar declined to comment on the rulings.


Paul Gordon can be reached at (309) 686-3288 or pgordon@pjstar.com.