Towing the line: Tenants and naughty parkers fill year

Beginning in October, consumers complained so continuously about landlords and local wrecker services that I worried I'd never write about anything else. Imagine my relief, then, when a couple of disputes over appliances finally got trapped in my lint filter.

No doubt things will continue to go wrong in areas other than dust-ups over security deposits and towing fees. Still, I predict that 2005 will see plenty of complaints about both– so as we wrap up 2004, let's review how to avoid stumbling into either corner of consumer hell.


First resolution: don't get towed

 The best policy, of course, is to never get towed involuntarily: When you see signs like "private parking" and "towing enforced," clear out. Don't gamble that you won't get caught, and don't decide that skipping a $3 fee for after-hours parking makes sense– even if it doesn't cost $130 to reclaim your car.

That's what happened to Fax Ayres and his wife ["Not Lethal," December 2] when their van was towed from a downtown parking lot by Collier's. The only unique element of their saga, as suggested by the column's title, is that they weren't towed by Lethal: Out of eight towing disputes I covered in 2004 (or, in one case, briefly mentioned), seven concerned Lethal.

Ayres contacted me because, like all the Lethal customers I wrote about, he had been overcharged. He knew that because– as I've said here more times than you can shake a stick at– the maximum fee for after-hours towing is $95, and he had been charged $105 (plus a $25 penalty from the parking lot, for a total of $130). That's the law in Virginia (Section 46.1233.1), and until and unless wrecker services in Virginia get the law changed, that's engraved in stone.

But all resemblance to Lethal ends there: Ayres experienced neither hostility nor intimidation while at Collier's, and he wasn't forced to come up with cash. Lethal's customers, in contrast, repeatedly claim they've been subjected to all three: verbal abuse, threats, and the demand– even late at night– for cash.

This year's coverage of the notorious company began in March, with UVA employee Barbara Hatcher's claim of hostile treatment after being towed from a lot at Scott Stadium. The following month, the university announced that it had dropped Lethal from its list of towing companies.

Things heated up in June, when Rosalind Hingeley and Patricia Nixon filed suit in Charlottesville General District Court after being overcharged and were awarded $70 and $105, respectively, by Judge Robert Downer. In July I reported on Robert Parolisi's memorable encounter with Lethal after his girlfriend's car got towed one evening from the apartment complex where he lived. He, too, was overcharged ($15), but decided not to sue.

In late October, Jonathan Coleman took his bill for $150 to Judge Downer– but instead of asking for the $55 he had been charged above the legal limit, he sued for $500– and won. Turns out that by violating section 46.2-1233.1, Lethal had also run afoul of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act– and that, in turn, allowed him to seek damages of $500.

Tom Hocket's towing tale ran on November 18, and Liz Paschall's– complete with a Lethal receipt signed "Jesus H. Christ"– was mentioned on December 2. Hocket was overcharged $25, and Paschall $55. Both intend to sue for $500 plus court costs.

How long will Lethal be allowed to violate state law? Perhaps in 2005, the City will finally call it to account.


Second resolution: take pictures

 Take pictures as soon as you move into rental property, because the second most common complaint I investigated was the shrunken– or, in some cases, the vanished– security deposit.

The Year of the Renter kicked off in March, when Andrew Logan and property manager Wallace Gibson disagreed volubly on the condition of the house Logan and his wife had rented on Nelson Drive. Specifically, should they have removed large hooks and other hardware from the faux-finish dining room walls? Gibson claimed the unique paint job would be quite expensive to repair.

The two sides met (where else?) in Judge Downer's courtroom, where he ruled that the Logans had been correct to remove the hardware– but sided with Gibson on some of the smaller items, which led both sides to claim victory. (Logan's claim, however, was more convincing.)

I returned to the Land of Landlord-Tenant Duels in midsummer, when a group of students who had rented a picturesque cottage on Maywood Lane were growing old waiting for their refund check. The owner countered that the tenants' cats had caused such a flea infestation that it was taking longer than usual to compute the final amount.

After I informed her that the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act requires that refunds be made within 45 days of the end of the lease– a deadline she'd already missed– she agreed to speed up the process, and the battle ended.

Rental wrangles began alternating with Lethal in mid-October, when in quick order I reported on a dispute over the Walsh sisters' paint job in a duplex on Gentry Lane, the condition of an antique bathtub when Katie McCarthy vacated a cottage outside town, and how a tenant and landlord clashed over conditions of an apartment on Tenth Street.

Things in this corner of consumer hell have been quiet for a few weeks now– but that won't last: As sure as graduates walk down the Lawn in May, stripped-down refund checks will hit the mails in June– and I expect I'll be hearing all about it.

The best resolution, of course, is to avoid consumer hell entirely. But if you tumble in anyway and can't get out, let me know. While I can't promise miracles, I can at least shed some light on the situation.

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