Lethal brew: The beer went down the mountain

For about a year, I'd heard talk of an incident involving a tractor-trailer and Lethal Wrecker. One rumor falsely asserted that Lethal Wrecker had charged a bundle because it righted an overturned truck. I can now report that the truth is stranger than that fiction.

Sometime after midnight on March 28, 2003, a Fleetmaster Express tractor-trailer driver got "off-route" near Greenwood, according to Chris Prince, director of safety and risk management for Fleetmaster, which is headquartered in Roanoke. The driver got so severely "off-route" that he– and the 44,000 pounds of beer he was hauling– ended up on a one-lane, unpaved road partway up a mountain on Jarman's Gap Road near Crozet.

Prince says the driver (Prince suspects he was visiting a woman in the area) had been told there was a place where he could turn around and head back to Interstate 64. Instead, by the time he deduced he'd been misinformed, there was no hope of turning the massive vehicle around.

Prince was called in Roanoke at 6am, and immediately headed for Crozet. When he arrived, he found– in addition to Lethal owner George Morris and Albemarle County police– "a drunken woman on the hood of a convertible," nine day laborers, a wrecker, a flat-bed truck, three other Lethal employees, and the owner of the adjoining property.

A "screaming match" was in full swing, which, with help from the police, Prince defused. (In case you're wondering, the woman atop the convertible is suspected of being the girlfriend.)

By then a number of schemes involving wreckers of various sizes had been unsuccessfully attempted. The latest plan, allegedly hatched by the Lethal contingent, was to open the doors and roll the beer cans down the mountain. This was why the property owner was screaming. (And, according to Prince, why the woman on the convertible was hanging around; when the police told her to either leave or be arrested, she bolted).

Prince vetoed the idea of pitching thousands of cans of beer down the mountain. And, anyway, the doors were jammed shut by the trees pressing against the doors. So Prince decreed that they would saw a hole in the side of the truck and use the day laborers to unload the beer, drive each load to the bottom of the mountain, and transfer it to another tractor-trailer. When empty, the stuck truck would be easy to back down the mountain.

After thousands of cases of beer had been unloaded, the now-liberated truck was backed downhill to a pasture where it was turned around and the driver– who was soon to be liberated from his job– headed toward I-64.

Morris told Prince to follow him to his office on Avon Street. "I got the distinct feeling," Prince says, that once he got there things weren't going to exactly go his way.

Indeed, they didn't. First, when he entered the office he noticed that a Lethal employee had driven a truck in front of his car, blocking him in. "I felt like a captive," he says.

But then he got the bill: $16,150. His protests– and later protests by mail– were in vain; so was the lawsuit Fleetmaster filed that June in Albemarle County District Court, in which the company sought to recover almost $13,000. Ruling that the law sets no maximum in such cases (unlike standard car tows that are supposed to max out at $95), judge William Barkley found for Lethal. Efforts to reach Morris, the truck driver, and the Crozet woman were unsuccessful.


Next week I'll tell you about two more County customers who got big bills from Lethal: $1,700 and $6,000, respectively. The first could afford to pay; the second couldn't. Both, like Fleetmaster Express, believe they were wildly overcharged– but also appear to have little hope of redress. Things may soon improve, however, for drivers in the County who need to be towed; stay tuned for the details.

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



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