<I>Majeur</I> hassle? Stuff takes long way home

What gets to Denver from Charlottesville only after stopping in New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah? A moving van, of course. There's nothing wrong with that itinerary, unless everything you own is in the van– and it's running really, really late.

That's what happened to Jacob Kinnard. When he signed with Allied Van Lines and prepaid the $4,800 fee, the local office promised delivery by August 10, and estimated that it might arrive five days earlier.

Allied's local employees picked up his stuff on July 29, after which Kinnard traveled to Denver. When his belongings didn't arrive, he called the Charlottesville office and learned that the scheduled truck had "fallen through." The new arrival date was August 17.

On August 16, he learned that there had been another problem, pushing the delivery date back to August 22 or 23. Those dates, however, wouldn't work as he had longstanding plans to fly back to Charlottesville August 20-26 to see his children, ages 3 and 6.

According to Kinnard, when he arranged the delivery, he had been assured that his return trip would not pose a problem. Now it was a huge problem. It would cost $369 to change his plane tickets, and his children would be disappointed.

Even worse, an employee in Allied's national office informed him that if no one was at his Denver home to receive the shipment, Allied would store it– at Kinnard's expense.

Kinnard called the president of the Charlottesville office, Presley Thach, who, he says, told him to call the national office and "scream at them."

That resulted in some progress. Allied agreed to give him $400 toward the expenses he was incurring. As for changing the arrival date, however, they wouldn't budge. If Kinnard wanted to avoid paying for storage, he would have to hire someone to meet the van. Reluctantly, he did so and left on his trip.

Kinnard's opinion of the local office, by the way, is as positive ("They did a great job") as his opinion of the national office is negative ("They're charlatans").

I spoke with Jim Trainor, Allied vice president for corporate communications, who claimed that a delay "anywhere near" this long is "extremely unusual." Allied completes roughly 140,000 moves each year, he said, and "every once in a while there's a bad move."

The company reports that from January to July of this year, it was on time 93.5% of the time– and Trainor says that in most cases, "late" means a day or two. In Kinnard's case, "It was just foul-ups– too many moves chasing too many trucks." To make things worse, he adds, the company has been "very, very busy" this summer.

The moving industry is regulated by the Federal Highway Administration, which publishes a booklet called "A Must-Read: Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move."

I pointed out to Trainor that according to regulations cited in the booklet, the only legitimate defense for lateness is "force majeur." Did "foul-ups" constitute a force majeur? No, he replied; only such things as tornadoes qualified.

The federal guidelines state that movers must reimburse reasonable allowable expenses, which include the cost of a motel, 50 percent of meals, and 25 percent of essential clothing. Kinnard had camped out on a mattress in his apartment, but had plenty of other expenses– including the cost of paying someone to wait for the van. Was Allied, I asked, planning to reimburse Kinnard only the $400? "We haven't seen the receipts yet," Trainor said, but he pledged that any other allowable expenses would be covered.

In the end, the van arrived August 22, Kinnard returned to Denver on August 26, and he's ready to embark on his new life in Denver– as soon as he finishes unpacking.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.