Brass action: City joins fight against Lethal

City to Lethal: Three strikes, and you're out. Actually, many citizens have cried foul over the local wrecker service, but the City's only counting strikes called by an umpire– in this case, Judge Robert Downer of Charlottesville General District Court.

In a suit filed last month in Charlottesville Circuit Court, the City claims that Lethal violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act by overcharging when towing cars from private property.

As evidence of Lethal's allegedly illegal practices, the City cites three cases covered in earlier columns.

Last June, Patricia Hendrix and Rosalind Hingeley were overcharged $105 and $70, respectively ["Gouge-athon," June 24]. Downer awarded both women the amount they'd been overcharged plus court costs.

In October, Jonathan Coleman raised the stakes against the Avon Street business when he asked Downer to award him not just the $55 he'd allegedly been overcharged after being towed from a downtown lot, but a whopping $500 ["Suing Lethal," November 4].

He won, because by violating the section of the state code that sets maximum fees for towing, Lethal had also violated the Consumer Protection Act– in which case damages start at $500 and can go as high as $1,500.

According to the City's suit, Lethal owner George Morris was advised by a City official in February 2002 that the maximum he and his employees could charge for towing a vehicle from private property (if the vehicle is retrieved within 24 hours) is $95. The over-$95 charges continued, however, and on October 8, 2004, Lethal was provided written notice that the City was contemplating legal action.

Eleven days later, City Attorney Craig Brown and Deputy City Attorney Lisa Kelley met with Morris who, according to the filing, asserted that he was acting within state law. Coleman's General District Court case was heard the following week, and, with three rulings against Lethal in hand, the City filed its suit on December 23.

The suit not only asks the court to prohibit Morris and his employees from charging more than state maximums, but goes on to request refunds for overcharged citizens. Finally, it asks for attorney's fees and unspecified civil penalties.

Kelley says Lethal has engaged in a "pattern" of overcharging. If Morris or his employees were to continue overcharging after the injunction had been entered, they would be in contempt of court.

The City's willingness to help identify a group entitled to sue for damages could get expensive for Lethal, as Coleman's case has already shown. After he filed to garnish Lethal's account at Provident Bank for the $500 in damages, court costs, and interest, Coleman received a check for $615.50.

Morris has until today, January 13, to appeal and specify which issues in the suit, if any, he disputes. If he were to concede all points, the case would evaporate– but, Kelley says, "We certainly don't expect that."

Morris refused comment to the Hook.

 Failing such an admission of illegal practices, the case will proceed, and the court will decide the issues that remain in contention.

Stay tuned, Lethal watchers; looks like this could get interesting.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.


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