Tollers to repay $1.4m, waive $41m+ in S Cal to settle toll violation debt cases
By Peter Samuel
Southern California tollers have agreed to repay about $1.4m and to waive $41m or an estimated 29% of accumulated toll violation penalties owing for violations since early 2003. They have also agreed to make major revisions to their handling of future violations. These moves are part of a court supervised settlement of a class action suit lodged early 2007 on behalf of aggrieved motorists stuck with debts a hundred times more than original unpaid tolls from accumulating penalties.
The toll agencies are Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), operators of 91 Express Lanes, and Transportation Corridors Agencies (TCA) operators of the 73, 133, 241 and 261 tollroads known as The Toll Roads.
Both tollers deny there was anything illegal or wrongful in their past violations billing and collections practices, but the plaintiffs claimed violation of due process and excessive fines clauses of 14th and eighth Amendments of the US Constitution, violation of the California Constitution, and of state business and professions codes. The toll authorities said they settled to avoid the costs, risks, uncertainties and inconvenience of litigation.
The plaintiffs gave accounts of violations bills compounding to 4, 5 and even 6-digit dollar sums due messups over adding car to toll accounts, undelivered mail, bank card expiries. Trophy examples included Maria and Pablo Gonzales whose unpaid tolls of $60 metastasized over a couple of years into a bill for $78,780. Stephanie and Brian Young failed to pay $635 in tolls and then failed to pay non-payment penalties building up to a claim for $61,580 - all they said because the bank card they had registered with OTCA to make automatic payments had expired.
The tollers have undertaken to make more vigorous efforts to contact motorists about imminent low balances, expiring bank cards, and other sources of unpaid bills. They promise to make more use of automated telephone calling and emails as well as the old USPS mail to make sure people are aware of the debts they are running up. They also undertake to improve their systems to record the moves they make to collect.
The two toll authorities will support the hiring of an "independent administrative hearing officer" to review complaints.
The new violations system is supposed to distinguish cases where a single error or incident was the source of the unpaid tolls and penalties from those where there are multiple cases of violations.
The settlement agreement says: "The independent administrative hearing officer retained by OCTA and TCA to conduct administrative reviews will be advised that he/she should consider any fact which may tend to show that the violation was inadvertent; that the violation was the result of an innocent mistake; that multiple violations all arose from a single inadvertent cause, such as a lost, stolen, expired credit or debit or other payment card, or bank account that was canceled by the customer; that under all circumstances, the penalties imposed will cause an undue hardship for the person requesting the review; or any other circumstance which may bear on the culpability of the person seeking review or the cumulative amount of the penalties imposed."
The tollers agree to only pursue violations where the initial toll violation notice goes out within ten days.
They also agree to a '20x rule' that there is a ceiling to accumulated penalties twenty times the toll violated. Some of those joining the class action suit had accumulated debt claimed by the tollers that was over one hundred times the original unpaid tolls.
The tollers agree to new warnings on accumulating penalties.
The agreement still has to be formally endorsed by the Orange County Superior Court where it was litigated.