Gouge-athon: Lethal's pricing illegal
It's rare that a customer who argues with Lethal Wrecker wins, but in Charlottesville General District Court on June 8, the controversial company was declared the loser– twice. In short order, Judge Robert Downer ruled that Patricia Nixon and Rosalind Hingeley had been overcharged and awarded the two towees judgments of $105 and $70, respectively.
Neither woman had argued that they'd been unjustly towed; rather, they simply knew that they'd been charged more than the law allows.
Section 46.2 of the Code of Virginia sets four limits. First, $85 is the maximum that can be charged for initial hookup and towing. Second, between 7pm and 8am, or on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, no more than $10 can be added to that for what towing companies call a "release fee." Third, it's illegal to charge a storage fee for the first 24 hours. And fourth, no other charges may be added during the first 24 hours except as provided by additional local ordinance(s), of which Charlottesville has none.
In Nixon's case, she had been charged $120 for the tow, or $35 more than the $85 limit, $30 for special equipment, and $10 for storage– even though she retrieved her car within 24 hours– for a total overcharge of $75 plus $30 in court costs.
In Hingeley's case, it was actually a friend who'd been towed, but because Hingeley, who works at the Hook, had told the friend it would be okay to park in the lot behind the building housing the Hook office, she said she felt honor-bound to pay Lethal's bill– which included a $30 "retrieval fee" and $10 for storage. (As in Nixon's case, Hingeley's friend had claimed her car within 24 hours). Accordingly, Downer issued a judgment against Lethal for $40 plus $30 court costs.
Hingeley was upset about more than the illegally inflated bill, however. As Hook office manager Rachel Brear later wrote in an email to building owner Larry Bambacus, Hingeley claims that not only did Lethal damage her friend's car, but they were both verbally abused. She also alleges that the employee at the storage lot threatened to turn a dog on them. "Maybe," Brear wrote Bambacus, "we can get a more professional towing company to peruse our lot."
Bambacus wasn't swayed. "If they act in the manner you say they do when they remove a car," he emailed in reply, "then they are guilty of merely defending themselves when confronted by those who believe they are overcharged.
"Now don't get me wrong," he continued; "I don't condone their actions of threatening to have a dog, either a two-legged or four-legged one, turned loose on them. One is just as lethal as the other, in my opinion."
In the final analysis, however, Bambacus is a Lethal fan: "Lethal is willing to come to work at all hours of the night or early morning, puts up with angry violators, and by working the graveyard shift, they should be compensated for hazardous duty."
Bambacus might be a little less enthusiastic if he understood that, according to Deputy City Attorney Lisa Kelley, when Lethal tows cars from his property, the company and its drivers become his agents. It would be in a property owner's "best interest," Kelley adds, to find out whether such an agent is "threatening physical harm" or involved in illegal pricing.
Lethal owner George Morris declined my request for comment on the two cases, so I can't say whether he agrees that Hingeley's friend's car was damaged. If it was, however, it wouldn't be the first time a customer made that claim; last July Bill Hedges sued Morris in General District Court, claiming Lethal had damaged his 1992 Mercedes while being towed. He was awarded $1,300 plus court costs.
As of this spring, Lethal is no longer allowed to tow cars from Grounds at UVA. Citing "mistreatment" of customers, UVA Director of Procurement Eric Denby ended the company's contract on April 7.
Kelley says the City is "very concerned" about Lethal's repeated overcharging. So here's my consumer tip for the week: Keep this column in your wallet. Then, if you're ever faced with a Lethal employee brandishing an inflated bill, at least you'll be armed.
Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.