The Chatsworth firm's national television advertising campaign depicted a gray-haired woman lying helpless at the bottom of a staircase, crying, "I've fallen and I can't get up." It urged the elderly and disabled to buy an emergency alarm system that could supposedly summon help faster than dialing 911.
Following an undercover sting operation by district attorney's investigators, the firm, Life Alert Emergency Response Inc., this week became the target of a $2-million lawsuit accusing it of high-pressure and misleading sales tactics used to coerce mainly elderly people into paying up to $5,000 for the systems.
Investigators said the alert system consists of a portable "help button" that can be worn around the neck or mounted on a wall if a person is bedridden. Pushing the button activates an answering-machine-like device that dials the Life Alert office in Chatsworth. Operators there, in turn, call emergency services such as paramedics.
The lawsuit does not question the system's effectiveness. Instead, it claims that company sales representatives wore customers down with hours-long pitches and falsely implied that the company had better access to emergency services through a hot line that bypassed 911 dispatchers. Deluxe systems also included fire and burglar alarms.
Eight counties, including Los Angeles County, joined the state attorney general's office to file the suit after discovering during a meeting of consumer attorneys last year that they had independently received similar complaints about the 4-year-old company.
A Life Alert training manual, unearthed by an investigator who posed as an aspiring salesman, encourages sales representatives to "go for the emotional sale, not a logical sale." It includes such advice as: "Create the need and desire by using love and concern"; and "Put your client in a position where he is forced to face a potential emergency of his loved one."
The suit includes statements from about 40 dissatisfied Life Alert customers, said Jeffrey Holtzman, a deputy district attorney in Sonoma County, where the lawsuit was filed.
Eric Bordo, the advertising director for Life Alert, said the company would not respond to the charges. However, Bordo accused district attorneys involved of political motives in filing the suit and said his office had received a steady stream of calls from satisfied customers since media reports of the lawsuit emerged.
"Out of hundreds of thousands of in-home demonstrations of Life Alert, a small percentage of people have complained--less than 1%. Always it's the squeaky wheel that draws attention," he said.
One dissatisfied customer included in the suit, Antonia Lopez of San Jose, said a salesman tired her out with a three-hour pitch in 1989, then convinced her to pay $800 down with a new Visa card she had just been sent.
"I got tired, I was hungry. I just said, 'OK, I'll take it,' " said Lopez, 68, who is bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis.
Lopez said she tried to cancel the installation the following day, within the three-day cooling off period required for home solicitations by state consumer laws, but installers arrived anyway. Three months later, after contacting a consumer rights group, she finally got the system removed, but only $300 of her down payment was returned.
Holtzman and other investigators interviewed said they had collectively received more than 100 additional complaints about the firm on Friday, as news of the lawsuit spread. They said many of those callers would be included in the suit and would share in any financial award.
"We believe this is just the tip of the consumer iceberg," he said.
Jean Huebner was among the 30 people who called Los Angeles County investigators Friday. Huebner, 70, said she purchased a Life Alert device two years ago when she lived by herself in a mobile home in Canyon Country. The device, which included a smoke alarm, cost $2,500, plus a $29 monthly rental fee.
Huebner said she tried to cancel the rental fee after she moved last year to a senior citizens apartment complex in Burbank because the building has its own built-in medical alarms.
"I tried to get them to stop billing me, but they wouldn't. I tried to sell it, but I couldn't," she said. "It's sitting under the bed. I don't know what to do with it. It's just money down the drain."
In the case of Fern Hettig, 84, of Granada Hills, problems were not related to the $2,500 cost of the system, but to its claims of bringing help fast, said her daughter, Beverly Guild. When Hettig had trouble breathing early one morning in 1989, she called Guild and pushed her Life Alert button. Guild got to the apartment 10 minutes later, where she found her mother alone and no paramedics in sight, she said.
"I went in and I pushed that Life Alert button myself," Guild said. "I said, 'What in the world happened? Why didn't you send somebody?' They said they couldn't understand her."
Another consumer protection lawsuit was filed in 1985 against Life Alert's owner, Isaac Shepher, by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for misleading advertising for a purportedly therapeutic chair. Advertisements claimed the chair, which cost $2,000 to $3,000, was effective in treating high blood pressure, heart disease and bad backs. That suit was settled out of court for $113,000.
Shepher, who lives in Woodland Hills, also is the owner or partner in several other companies, including a development firm, L.A. Hebrew Media Inc. and L.A. Hadashot, a 20,000-circulation Hebrew language weekly.
Of 30 or so emergency response systems in the nation, Life Alert is one of two that advertises regularly on television, said Lee Norrgard, an investigator with the American Assn. of Retired Persons. Norrgard said the systems are useful for the elderly, but can cost as little as $300.