Rude awakening: 'Dad, Lethal wants $150 in cash'

Talk about a rude awakening: At 4am on May 23, Thomas Adkins' 19-year-old son woke him with a mixture of good, bad, and alarming news.

The good news was that although he had driven his pickup into a ditch, he hadn't been hurt, and AAA had sent a wrecker to extricate the truck. The bad news was that the driver had then demanded $150 in cash, which the son didn't have. The alarming news was that the driver, who was none too happy, was outside the house in his truck– in his Lethal Wrecker truck– and vowing to keep the pickup until payment was rendered.

Adkins told his son to go to bed, and, armed with his son's AAA card, went outside. There, he claims, he told the Lethal Driver that because his son had called AAA, he shouldn't have to pay. But the driver became "belligerent," according to Adkins, who then called the Albemarle County Police.

Adkins also called Lethal and claims that the dispatcher, Donielle Messner, told him he was "crazy" and that the son had called Lethal, not AAA.

When the police arrived, one of the officers, according to Adkins, stated that she "couldn't keep [the driver] from taking your vehicle." And so, because the Adkinses didn't have $150 in cash at 4:00 in the morning, the Lethal driver drove off with their pickup in tow.

Although Adkins claims the driver told him that he would be able to use a credit card when he went to Lethal's Avon Street office the next day, he says that when he got there, Messner declared, "We'll only take cash from you." He paid the $150 and left– and, later that day, gave me a call.

This is far from the first time I've received a complaint about Lethal. Because I've had trouble communicating with Messner and her boss, George Morris, in the past (the last time I tried to speak to Morris, Messner refused to let me and then threatened to sue if I didn't stop writing about them), I decided to send a fax. I asked two questions: "Did your driver in fact demand $150 from the Adkinses?" and "If so, since it was an AAA call, why?"

Messner called almost immediately and left a message saying that since Morris hadn't been "directly involved"– but she had– she would discuss the situation with me. Before I returned her call, I faxed a copy of a letter from AAA to Adkins in which they verified that the call had indeed been made to AAA and not to Lethal.

Messner told me that the only reason the driver had asked for the $150 was that Adkins' son had insisted that the driver tell him how much it would cost.

I asked why, when Adkins produced his son's AAA card and showed it to the driver– who remained in his truck– the driver continued to insist on payment. Messner's reply was that since the son wasn't present, there was no way for the driver to verify that the son was really the AAA member listed on the card.

Messner defends Lethal's handling of this situation in particular and her company's record of customer service in general: "We're in business to help people."

Last spring I wrote about a similar situation ["The drivable car: Lethal raises AAA eyebrows," May 9, 2003], in which Locust Avenue resident Downing Smith called AAA to have his ailing but drivable car towed to Herb Brown. When the driver demanded $80 and Smith refused to pay, pointing out that he had called AAA, the driver unloaded his car and drove off. Smith, like Adkins, called the police, but there was nothing they could do.

At the time, Randy Green, public relations manager for Mid-Atlantic AAA, stated unequivocally that Lethal was wrong to demand payment from a member– and yet, more than a year later, they're clearly still at it. AAA, meanwhile, has refunded Adkins his $150.

Green told me that AAA is now "in discussions" with Lethal as to their future as business partners. I won't have the results by press time– so watch this space next week.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.