PhotoTalk about a barroom brawl. You promise to buy somebody a drink sometime and when you don't, they and all their friends pile onto you.

That's basically what happened to Southwest Airlines. For years, it handed out free drink coupons that didn't have an expiration date to its Business Select customers. But then, the bean-counters added up what all those coupons were worth and in August 2010, Southwest announced the old coupons were about as worthless as a Confederate dollar in 1866.

Instead, Southwest said free drink coupons would only be good on the travel day for which they were issued. That incensed those left high and dry and they did what any self-respecting, drink-slinging Texan would do: filed a class-action lawsuit.

The courtroom's swinging doors were kept busy for years until January 2013, when Southwest agreed to set up another round, about 5.8 million drinks, for those deprived of alcoholic solace.

Class members will receive a replacement drink voucher for each unredeemed drink coupon, which expires one year after its date of issuance, and they may sell them or give them away if they do not desire to use them.

Final approval

The tab comes to an estimated $29 million, which is a pretty hefty round of drinks any way you look at it. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly granted final approval of the settlement earlier this week, noting that unlike many class actions, this one actually produces something wet and tangible for consumers. 

He said it a bit more grandly, however: "The key factor in this particular case is that the proposed settlement calls for a full-value, one-to-one reimbursement of drink vouchers for class members and allows class members to sell or otherwise transfer the new vouchers should they desire."

"The fact that they (plaintiffs) get back almost exactly what they lost weighs heavily in favor of approval of the proposed settlement," Kennelly wrote. 

If you find yourself with a fistful of free-drink coupons, you can toast Southwest or Juge Kennelly if you like but you might also raise a glass to Adam Levitt and Herbert Malone, the sorehead consumers who were the named plaintiffs in the case.

It should be a happy day aloft as everyone appears infused with bonhomie. Only 13 class members of 2.4 million objected to the settlement, less than 0.01 percent. After all, who in his right mind would turn down a free drink?

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