4/17/2015Virginia: Class Action Lawsuit Filed Over Toll Road Abuse
Motorists fight back against hefty fines imposed when transponder malfunctions on Virginia toll road.
Motorists hit by massive fines on Virginia's toll roads filed suit in federal court Wednesday against the Australian company responsible for collecting the levies. Mary Elise Pizarro, a driver from Alexandria, accuses Transurban of imposing $9440 in fines when her E-Z Pass transponder failed to register $20 in tolls on the Interstate 495 high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, due to no fault of her own.
"Transurban has filed thousands of lawsuits against DC area drivers in the past year alone seeking to collect exorbitant and illegal administrative fees and civil penalties," attorney James Pizzirusso said in a statement. "Area drivers are finally standing up to Transurban's bullying tactics."
The suit alleges that the imposition of fines is intentionally excessive to make up for a shortfall in revenue. The Beltway HOT lanes have flopped, losing $51 million in 2013. Last year, Transurban generated additional cash by filing 26,000 lawsuits for unpaid tolls, some of which were caused by the failure of Transurban's own equipment.
"Inadvertent missed tolls can happen to anyone, whether because the toll gate malfunctions, or because an E-Z Pass battery dies," attorney Jeffrey Kaliel explained. "When that happens, everyone agrees the driver should pay the missed toll. But this private toll-road operator must not be allowed to ruin a driver's finances with thousands of dollars in devastating fees and penalties for a $1 or $2 toll."
Transurban has been imposing an "administrative penalty" of up to $1000 for each missed toll. Under this scheme, $50 in missing tolls becomes a $31,000 fine; $36 in unpaid tolls becomes $17,000.
Transurban accused Jo-Ann Brown, for example, of not paying $4.95 in tolls and charged her $3413. Michele Osborne was accused of skipping four tolls, though she had a valid transponder and account, for which she was charged $2293. Both motorists had a valid E-Z Pass that is linked to her credit card, but some form of equipment malfunction prevented the transponder from registering the transaction.
The suit contends that Virginia law does not authorize these stiff penalties, and that non-lawyers are sent out to settle these automated lawsuits out of court on terms favorable to Transurban.
"The HOT lanes operator may impose and collect an administrative fee in addition to the unpaid toll so as to recover the expenses of collecting the unpaid toll, which administrative fee shall be reasonably related to the actual cost of collecting the unpaid toll and not exceed $100 per violation," Virginia Code Section 33.2-503 states.
The suit charges Transurban with violating federal and state debt collection laws and the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines. It seeks a refund for all the penalties Transurban has imposed.