Towed to court: Lethal's busy... with the judge

Should we call Court TV? If Michael Jackson's trial is over by June 6, they might be ready for a change of pace– and what a diverting change of pace Charlottesville circuit court has on tap: That's kickoff day for the City's suit against Lethal Wrecker, which has been brewing since last fall.

The suit claims that Lethal has repeatedly violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act by overcharging for towing cars from private property. After three Lethal customers were awarded judgments by Judge Robert Downer in Charlottesville General District Court for being overcharged, the City filed its suit in December ["Brass action," January 13, 2005].

Owner George Morris won't have to wait till then to see the inside of Downer's courtroom again. In March alone, the following unhappy Lethal customers will be pressing for damages:

* Keith Welty (March 8, $500),

* Duke Chute (March 1, $1,560),

* Erik Greenbaum and Melinda Braid (March 21; $500 each).

On March 29, Order from Horder's $374 suit for alleged nonpayment of a debt will be heard.

Incidentally, March 8 will be a busy day for Morris; in addition to Welty's suit, he'll also be tried for assault and battery in Albemarle County General District Court.

Now for two involuntary Lethal customers who have no legal recourse. In the first case, Pat and Glenn Gibson, owners of Gibson Excavating, were driving one of their dumptrucks on Miller School Road near Crozet on April 2, 2003. As they rounded a curve, the subframe allegedly broke and the truck turned over, coming to rest in a creek next to the road.

Both Gibsons were injured, and claim that as they were being taken away by the rescue squad, they asked County police at the scene to call Albemarle Towing and to have the truck towed to their business, where they would repair it themselves.

Instead, the County called Lethal. When the Gibsons claimed their truck on April 5, the bill came to $1,750: $1,500 for the tow, $200 for three days of storage, and $50 for releasing the truck on a weekend. The couple claims that Morris refused to take a business check, and insisted on cash.

When they filed suit in Albemarle County General District Court in an attempt to recover part of their costs, however, they were told that since there's no state-mandated tariff for such tows, they had no recourse. That was the same verdict handed down to Fleetmaster Express, the trucking company I wrote about last week ["Lethal Brew"], when Lethal charged over $16,000 to unload a tractor-trailer.

Finally, Emmet Durrette will never have a day in court because the statute of limitations has run out for him. In January 2001, the water pump on his 1987 Chevrolet went out and he left it at a service station along Route 250; Durrette claims the manager understood the situation and said the car would be safe there.

When he went back several days later, however, it had been towed, and no one could remember who had taken it. His own search among local towing services was fruitless– although he admits he didn't try Lethal. On April 15, 2001, he filed a report with Albemarle County Police. Several months later, Durrette claims, Officer Robert Matson found it "in a field near Ruckersville" and traced it to Lethal.

When Durrette called he was told that the storage fees and towing charge came to $6,000. He says he received some bum advice to the effect that if he sued and lost, he might be forced to pay the bill– so he didn't.

What angers Durrette even more than losing the car is losing the contents. He was between homes, and, among other things, had all his children's pictures in the car. When he asked Morris whether he could at least recover his possessions, however, he says Morris said no.

Officer Matson has since left the area, and Morris declined to answer questions about either Durrette or the Gibsons.

There's news from the County for beleagured towees. According to Lt. Ernest Allen III, Albemarle's towing policies are being reviewed with an eye to making them "more rigorous" by requiring such things as background checks on owners and drivers.

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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