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Italian wins lawsuit over coffee price increase

Monday, January 19, 2004

ROME -- Meddle with an Italian's cappuccino and expect a furious froth.

Since the 2002 introduction of the euro currency, Italians have grumbled about pricey pears and groused over costly cucumbers. But when a cafe rounded up the price of the morning java, it proved too much to bear.

In the first ruling of its kind, a justice of the peace found that a cafe in a seaside town near Rome overcharged a retired man 23 euro cents for his liquid breakfast after the currency conversion. The coffee bar was ordered to refund the price increase -- about 30 U.S. cents -- plus the man's legal costs.

The decision raises the prospect of a flood of similar lawsuits.

"The cappuccino's vendetta!" the Codacons public-advocacy group declared in a celebratory statement. Thousands more citizens want to file complaints, the group said.

To mark the legal victory, Codacons president Carlo Rienzi headed to the town of Ladispoli, 25 miles northwest of Rome, on Saturday to demand that the coffee bar restore its earlier prices.

'A positive signal'

The case may seem minor, but it offers symbolic satisfaction to the many Italians who have been complaining ever since the lira was banished and the euro arrived on Jan. 1, 2002. Everything costs more, they've been lamenting, but have found little succor until now.

That help came in an espresso-based form made the ruling especially satisfying in a country that traditionally wakes up to cappuccino and cornetto, as croissants are called in much of Italy.

At the offending cafe, as police kept an eye on the scene, Rienzi marched inside, ordered a cappuccino and checked the price. He triumphantly waved the receipt, which showed the pre-euro cost, apparently granted only in his case.

"This is a positive signal," he declared. "Consumers have defeated the rounding upward of prices."

He called on the bar owner, Felicia Sansone, to revert permanently to the lower price. The suggestion didn't go over well.

"I raised the price because everyone did. I rounded upward like other bars," Sansone said. "This whole story is just nonsense to me."

A local woman complained that price increases happened everywhere.

"They all do what they want, clothing shops, bread shops, grocers, gas stations -- they've all raised their prices," health worker Fernanda Calvi said. "If there were regular checks, we would discover that the phenomenon is widespread."

Many Italian consumers have complained that the government did not account for price jumps of unmonitored goods such as cappuccinos and so has unreported inflation.

Still, recent European Union data on inflation puts Italy high among the 12 nations that use the common currency. The annual rate of inflation in November for the whole euro zone was 2.2 percent, while Italy had the third-highest at 2.8 percent.

Euro brought higher prices

Some Italian officials argue that consumers exaggerate the matter. However, Premier Silvio Berlusconi acknowledged last month that the euro had brought problems, including higher prices.

"Don't content yourself with buying at the nearest shop," he advised consumers at a Dec. 20 news conference. "Before making a purchase, inform yourselves about the prices offered by various businesses."

The Ladispoli case started on the very day that the euro arrived. The man went to his local cafe, requested a cappuccino and was staggered by the new price of one euro, about 30 percent higher.

The day before, a cappuccino had cost just 1,500 lire, which would translate to 77 euro cents. He and Codacons filed a joint case and won the ruling last month, first publicizing it Friday.

The cafe owner vowed to appeal. Her cafe may have granted a one-time discount Saturday, but Sansone doesn't plan to bring the old price back.


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