A Connecticut car rental company that ran into trouble for using a global positioning device to fine speeding drivers lost another case last week after overcharging a customer and referring him to a phony legal department.
Richard Votto protested when American Car Rental, which operates Acme Rent-A-Car, charged him more than $12,000 for damage to a truck he rented. The bill was double the estimate of the damage from an accident. Votto had paid for insurance and had not authorized the charges to his credit card, according to court documents.
So the New Haven company referred the Hamden man to a legal department that turned out to be a vacant office 45 miles away in Greenwich, according to testimony.
“It’s a textbook case of a business taking advantage of a consumer,” said Bernadette Keyes, Votto’s attorney. “I don’t think you get any more blatant.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously to uphold a trial court decision awarding Votto more than $56,000 in damages. The court also concluded the company violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.
“The defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s signature on a blank credit card slip to charge the plaintiff more than twice the amount of the estimated cost of repair to the vehicle was without question unscrupulous, immoral and oppressive,” the court wrote. “The defendant’s unscrupulous conduct regarding the plaintiff’s credit card was matched or exceeded by its woeful response to the plaintiff’s complaint.”
The trial court found that the company frequently referred irate customers to a phantom legal department in Greenwich.
Acme’s attorney, Max Brunswick, said Votto’s award was excessive. He said the top of the truck was sheered off when Votto went under a bridge with insufficient clearance.
“All my client tried to do was recoup the money to fix his truck,” Brunswick said.
He acknowledged the company claimed to have an office in Greenwich and wanted complaints in writing. The credit card overcharge was an accident that occurred when the owner and the manager each charged the card not knowing the other had done so and later made a credit to the account, Brunswick said.
During the trial, a company employee testified that customers frequently complained of unauthorized credit card charges and that the company tried to get customers to sign more slips to validate the charges. The company also charged customers $100 for allegedly smoking in nonsmoking cars, according to testimony.
The decision came two weeks after the high court ruled the company cannot fine drivers caught speeding. The company used a global positioning system to assess $150 fines on customers who drove faster than 79 mph for more than two minutes.
Acme said the fines were to make up for wear and tear on cars that were driven at excessive speeds. However, a consumer protection hearing officer had determined that the wear and tear in such a case would be about 37 cents.
The company continues to use the global positioning devices but has not charged fines for speeding since 2001, Brunswick said.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed
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