Lethal cleaning: Towee balks at $700 fee

What's the difference between having a wreck in Albemarle County and having a wreck in the City? Answer: If you're in the County and you need a tow, the police can call Lethal Wrecker. In the City, they can't– and that can be a crucial difference.

At least, that's what Alberto Ojeda claims. Ojeda was traveling south on 29 on October 12, 2004 when he turned left at the light toward Antiquer's Mall and was hit by a car traveling north. The County police dispatcher called Lethal to tow his car, which had been totaled.

Ojeda claims that when he went to Lethal's office the next day to collect his tags and personal possessions, he was told it would cost him $700– in cash. When he asked why the bill was so high, he says he was told it was for cleaning up the scene of the wreck. He says he protested, and was told he could discuss the matter with owner George Morris.

When he tried, however, he claims that Morris refused to talk to him. "He was very, very rude with me," Ojeda says.

According to Ojeda, he paid the $700 and reclaimed his possessions. But he couldn't let go of the sense that he'd been gouged. $700 for a tow and clean!

For one thing, he claimed, the County fire department– not Lethal– had cleaned up the scene of the accident. And since when, he wondered, did the County charge people for cleaning up after a wreck?

Eventually, he complained to Delegate Rob Bell, and Bell called me. I called County police Lt. John Teixeira, who acknowledged that there have been complaints about the company and said, "We're currently reviewing the situation with Lethal Wrecker."

Don't look for sweeping change anytime soon, however: "We're restricted," Teixeira stated, "[as to] what we can do." As for charging citizens to clean up after wrecks, however, he was definite: "We don't require that at all."

In contrast, both the City and UVA have ruled that their police departments and other agencies should not call Lethal for any tows. The university dropped Lethal from its contract in April 2004, citing mistreatment of customers.

As for the City, Lethal bid on the City towing contract in February 2002, but was firmly rejected. In a March 15, 2002 letter to Morris, City Purchasing Manager Al Elias stated that– in addition to concerns about response times and the fact that Lethal was operating without City tax decals (because Morris maintained that he should be allowed to use Louisa County decals)– there was a more serious issue.

"Of more concern to the City," he wrote, "is your failure to provide any satisfactory response to the concerns we have about what happens after Lethal Wrecker responds to a call for service. As noted by the Better Business Bureau in explanation of the 'unsatisfactory' rating assigned by it to your business, you have failed to provide any explanation of complaints involving unethical or unlawful treatment of persons whose automobiles have been towed by your company."

Elias enclosed a copy of state code section 43-32, better known as the "garage-keeper's lien," which states that although a towing company, for instance, can refuse to release a car until the bill is paid, it can't withhold personal possessions: "Any lien created under this section shall not extend to any personal property which is not attached to or considered necessary for the proper operation of any motor vehicle, and it shall be the duty of any keeper of such personal property to return it to the owner if the owner claims the items prior to auction."

Morris adamantly denies that he charged Ojeda $700. "I'm the cheapest company in town," he declared during a short but action-packed phone interview. Morris implored me to "stop picking on" him. (Instead, he said, I should "go play in the road.")

That sounds like a risky pastime– but if I do decide to play in the road, I'll make sure it's a City road.

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

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