By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
July 1, 2010

The first class-action suit over the iPhone 4’s antenna is filed in Maryland

Is there any company that sues or gets sued more than Apple (AAPL)?

According to the Wikipedia entry Apple Inc. Litigation, Apple itself has filed more than 350 cases with the U.S. Trademark Office alone between Jan. 2008 and May 2010, including suits over the use of the term “apple” by people who sell the fruit.

So there’s a certain divine justice in the fact that the iPhone 4’s widely publicized issues with its antenna design triggered a race among America’s personal injury law firms to be the first to file a class-action suit.

A Sacramento firm got a lot of press when it began trolling for plaintiffs earlier this week. But the prize went to two East Coast firms that sued Apple and AT&T (T) Wednesday in a U.S. District Court in Maryland on behalf of Linda Wrinn and Kevin McCaffrey, a pair of Maryland residents who each bought two iPhone 4s and discovered, according to the complaint, that the devices dropped calls and data service “when held in a manner consistent with normal wireless phone use.” (link)

There are few surprises in the document, which you can read in toto at Gizmodo and which could have been written by anyone who has been following the story on Techmeme. It quotes Steve Jobs’ e-mails (“Just avoid holding it in that way”) and, via the Boy Genius Report, Apple internal communications (“WE ARE NOT appeasing customers with free bumpers — DON’T promise free bumpers to customers.”)

[UPDATE: All Things D‘s John Paczkowski has posted excerpts from a brief interview with one of the lawyers on the case.]

Nobody except maybe a few lawyers is going to get rich from this. Apple does occasionally settle such suits, but it doesn’t give the plaintiffs much. In May 2005 it settled a case involving the battery life of iPods dating back to first-generation units purchased in 2001. For their trouble, eligible members of the class were given warranties, store credit, cash compensation or a new battery.

Below: Wikipedia‘s summary of our favorite Apple legal saga —  the story of the company’s long-running battle with the late Carl Sagan.

In 1994, engineers at Apple Computer code-named the mid-level Power Macintosh 7100Carl Sagan” after the popular astronomer in the hope that Apple would make “billions and billions” with the sale of the PowerMac 7100.[6] The name was only used internally, but Sagan was concerned that it would become a product endorsement and sent Apple a cease and desist letter.[7] Apple complied, but engineers retaliated by changing the internal codename to “BHA” for “Butt-Head Astronomer”.[8][9] Sagan then sued Apple for libel, a form of defamation, in federal court. The court granted Apple’s motion to dismiss Sagan’s claims and opined in dicta that a reader aware of the context would understand Apple was “clearly attempting to retaliate in a humorous and satirical way”, and that “It strains reason to conclude that Defendant was attempting to criticize Plaintiff’s reputation or competency as an astronomer. One does not seriously attack the expertise of a scientist using the undefined phrase ‘butt-head’.”[10][11] Sagan then sued for Apple’s original use of his name and likeness, but again lost.[12] Sagan appealed the ruling.[13] In November 1995, an out of court settlement was reached and Apple’s office of trademarks and patents released a conciliatory statement that “Apple has always had great respect for Dr. Sagan. It was never Apple’s intention to cause Dr. Sagan or his family any embarrassment or concern.”[14]

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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