03/14/2012 02:06 EDT | Updated 05/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec court authorizes civil suit over Optimum points program changes

MONTREAL - Yet another class-action lawsuit has been authorized in Quebec over changes to a points program that has some angry customers arguing they've been short-changed.

Members of Pharmaprix's popular points plan say they were betrayed when the pharmacy chain changed its program halfway through 2010.

Now they'll get to argue, as part of a class-action suit to be heard in Quebec Superior Court, that the Quebec pharmacy chain unilaterally devalued the points accumulated under its popular Optimum program.

A judge signed off on a class-action suit last week on behalf of Option Consommateurs, a consumer lobby group in Quebec, and of lead plaintiff Pierre Gaumond; a similar suit has already been approved against the Aeroplan travel program.

The pharmacy suit says members saw the value of their points drop after changes were instituted to the program on July 1, 2010, by the parent company, Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. (TSX: SC).

The company operates under the Pharmaprix name in Quebec.

The changes to the program devalued accumulated points — for example, 8,000 points now will get customers $10 worth of merchandise while, before July 2010, it was 7,000 points for $10 worth of merchandise.

Gaumond said in his statement of claim that he was unaware of the change in the program until it was too late and his points were worth far less.

Marie-Anais Sauve, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, called the company actions illegal.

"The modification in the value of the points by Pharmaprix without the consent of consumers is abusive and therefore illegal," said Sauve, a lawyer with the firm Sylvestre Fafard Painchaud, in a statement.

A similar action filed in Ontario has not yet been certified.

But it's the second time this month that a class-action suit over changes to a rewards program is green-lighted in Quebec. A Quebec judge has also authorized a lawsuit against Aeroplan (TSX:AIM) over the company's decision to put an expiry date on points.

Both companies say they will be ready to battle to court.

According to the Optimum program rules, the company reserves the right to change the program without warning.

"We will be reviewing the judgment and we'll defend our position," said Tammy Smitham, director of communications and corporate affairs for Shoppers Drug Mart Corp., in an interview Wednesday.

The class-action suit aims to compensate members for the loss of the value of their points as well as reinstituting the old values. The suit also seeks $50 in exemplary damages for each member.

The class includes all Pharmaprix Optimum members who were living in Quebec on June 30, 2010, of which there are an estimated 1.4 million people.

Optimum club users will not have to sign up — they are automatically included in the class-action.

The initial suit sought a national member class for program members everywhere, but was pared back to Quebec due to concerns over jurisdiction.

About 9.7 million people are part of the Optimum program across Canada.

It will at least two years before a Quebec trial will be held.