Not Lethal: Another tower tests fee max

Talk about an expensive evening: Dinner out, then $130 for towing. That's what happened to Fax Ayres and his wife after she parked their van, around 8pm on November 22, in the lot that faces Lee Park across Market Street and went off to meet him for dinner.

There was no attendant in the booth– but, as Ayres readily concedes, instructions for after-hours payment are posted, and his wife didn't pay. When they returned at 9:30 and the car was gone, however, they were forced to follow another set of instructions: Call Collier's if your car's been towed.

They arrived at Collier's impound lot on West Main Street around 10pm, where Ayres was given a bill for $130. Ayres knew, from reading my columns on Lethal Wrecker's history of overcharging, that the maximum allowed for an after-hours tow is $95. After subtracting the $25 illegal parking fee– which is paid to the lot's owner– the balance was $105, or $10 more than the legal limit.

Ayres claims that he protested– and then, spying that week's Hook on a desk, pointed to my column on local chef Tom Hocket's dust-up with Lethal ["Sound familiar?" November 18, 2004] for confirmation of his claim that he was being overcharged.

According to Ayres, the Collier's employee, R.J., replied that Ayres' situation was "different" from Hocket's. Ayres disagreed, but paid the bill and wrote "Paid in protest" at the bottom.

When I spoke with Collier's owner, Glenda Jones, she insisted that their charges– $55 for the tow, $25 for dollies (because the van has front-wheel drive), and a $25 after-hours release fee– were legal. After a lengthy discussion, however, she was less certain. Because I've followed three towees as they successfully challenged Lethal in Charlottesville General District Court, I claim intimate knowledge of state code Section 46.2-1233.1.

After doing some research, Jones called back and pointed out that Section 46.2-1233.1 was passed in 1994, when fewer cars had front- or four-wheel drive. Today, she estimates, 40 percent of cars require dollies or other special equipment. (I suggested she and other towing companies might want to ask state legislators to change the law.)

On the matter of release fees, however, she was adamant that these are valid. Having been in the towing business for 13 years, Jones claims that other companies also charge to release cars after 5pm on weekdays and around the clock on weekends. Section 46.2-1233.1, she believes, speaks only to towing fees, not release fees.

But during Lethal's latest trip through Charlottesville General District Court, when Lethal office manager Donielle Messner tried to persuade Judge Robert Downer of the same ["Suing Lethal." November 4, 2004] Downer wasn't buying.

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

"Not by me," the judge replied.

Ayres plans to take the matter to court, where Jones hopes to have better luck than Messner did.

For a mere $3, of course, all this sturm und drang could have been avoided– by simply following the parking lot's instructions for paying after hours.


Divine intervention?

 If Jesus came back to earth, would he work for Lethal? It's hard to picture– yet there's his signature, "Jesus H. Christ," at the bottom of the $150 bill Liz Paschall got for being towed by Lethal in October 2003. Startling, yes– but when the subject's Lethal, anything's possible.

I'll report Paschall's saga in full when she has her day in front of Judge Downer. In the meantime, a correction: When I wrote in my November 18 column that "Lethal doesn't take cash," I meant, of course, to say that Lethal takes only cash.

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