Suing Lethal: Judge OKs wrecker slap

Lethal Wrecker is amassing quite a record in Charlottesville General District Court. Last week, for the third time in a row, the local towing service was successfully sued by an irate towee for overcharging.

This time, however, there was a new and expensive twist for the embattled wrecker company: the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.

Jonathan Coleman testified that on the morning of Sunday, August 22, his car was towed from the parking lot at the corner of Market and Second Street NE. As instructed by a sign posted in the lot, he called Lethal, verified the car was there, and went to Lethal's office on Avon Street.

When he arrived, a female employee said it would cost $150 to get his car back. "I knew intuitively that I was being overcharged," he told Judge Robert Downer, and added that even when he got towed once in New York City, it hadn't cost that much.

The bill was itemized as follows: $85 for the tow, $10 for labor, $20 for special equipment, and a $35 "release fee."

However, according to Section 46.2-1233.1 of the Code of Virginia, the maximum Lethal could charge Coleman was $95: $85 for the tow and $10 because it was a weekend, or $55 less than what Lethal was now demanding– in cash.

Here's where things get interesting: The Code (59.1-200, 204) goes on to state that overcharging violates the Consumer Protection Act and triggers the right to sue for actual damages, or $500, whichever is greater.

Lethal owner George Morris may want to ponder the sentence that follows: "If the [court] finds that the violation was willful, it may increase damages to an amount not exceeding three times the actual damages sustained, or $1,000, whichever is greater."

Lethal has been charting its own course, so to speak, since nearly three years ago, when I reported on David Ern's $120 Lethal bill for being towed from Ivy Square Shopping Center ["A Lethal night at the square," February 28, 2002]. How, you might ask, does Lethal justify charging more than any other towing service in town?

Lethal office manager Donielle Messner testified in the Coleman case, under oath, that the City has a towing ordinance that supersedes the state's price restrictions. Therefore, she asserted, Lethal's higher charges are legal perfectly. She hadn't brought the ordinance to court, she added, but could "get him a copy."

"We've come into many courtrooms," Messner declared, "and have never been told we can't charge release fees."

"Not by me," Downer replied.

Downer then leafed through a book of current City ordinances. When he found no evidence of the ordinance described by Messner, he ruled for Coleman: $500 plus court costs.

According to Assistant City Attorney Lisa Kelley, anyone towed from private property by Lethal within the past two years, paid more than the maximum listed above (plus $10 a day for storage after 24 hours), and still has the receipt may be able to follow in Coleman's footsteps with a suit of their own.

Hook staffer Rosalind Hingeley, who was awarded $40 plus court costs by Downer in a similar case last June, says she intends to return to General District Court and sue for additional damages under the Consumer Protection Act.

Incidentally, just because Coleman and Hingeley have won judgments doesn't mean they'll see any money. Both are studying a set of instructions issued by the court entitled, "So You've Won a Judgment– Now What?"

I'll report on Hingeley's return to court, as well as her and Coleman's attempt to collect from Lethal.

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

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