A Florida-based tree-removal company will have to pay restitution to some Wilmington consumers who, according to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, were victims of price-gouging during a state of emergency in the fall of 2018.
Stein announced Friday a settlement was reached with Canary Tree Service. Owned by Justin Hartmann, the company will refund six customers more than $38,000 for services it conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
Stein told Port City Daily in 2018, two weeks after Hurricane Florence hit the area, his office had received 57 complaints across the tri-county region. One Hampstead resident filed a $4,500 claim against Canary at the time but said she had doubts as to whether the AG would take any action.
Stein ended up suing Canary Tree Service in April 2019 for unlawful business practices during a state of emergency. When the governor signs a state of emergency declaration, it becomes unlawful for companies to overcharge for goods and services in the midst of a crisis.
“It doesn’t matter the type of crisis — a pandemic, a storm, a gas pipeline shutdown — it’s illegal to try to make a quick buck by taking advantage of North Carolinians’ desperation,” Stein said in a press release.
The settlement agreement states Canary Tree Service charged customers for its removal services at prices “unreasonably excessive under the circumstances.” It also alleges the company didn’t provide consumers a written quote breaking down all costs ahead of entering the contract, nor was a three-day right-to-cancel notice issued.
The Coastal Review revealed the breakdown of Canary’s prices from 2019 when Stein filed the suit. It showed one homeowner was charged “$14,000 for 30 hours of work, or $467 per hour, though another company estimated that work to cost about $2,400.”
The homeowner who paid $4,500 was charged for six hours of work — $750 per hour.
Canary denies the state’s allegations, according to the agreement. Entering a consent judgement usually is made to avoid trial proceedings. Hartmann and his attorney, Caitlin M. Poe of Williams Mullen, signed off to pay back $38,750. The smallest claim equals $3,250, followed by two claims worth $4,500 each, one for $5,000, another for $7,500, and the largest being $14,000.
Canary Tree Service also has to guarantee protections in the future, such as providing appropriate written quotes and right-to-cancel notices.
Last week, Stein settled two other suits — both for price-gouging — another which took place in the aftermath of Florence. A New Bern-area business, Secure Restoration, will reimburse three homeowners $36,881.53 collectively for water damage repairs inordinately priced during the 2018 state of emergency, the settlement alleges.
It also states the company overcharged despite verbally quoting the job would cost less and sent invoices for incomplete and unfulfilled work, while failing “to guarantee people their rights as consumers.”
The third suit was filed recently amid the spring 2021 gas shortage following Colonial Pipeline’s ransomware cyberattack. The attorney general reached a $10,000 settlement with Jack’s In & Out Food Mart in Durham, alleging the store increased gas prices 60% — from $3.29 to $5.499.
Stein also accused Jack’s of false advertising. Regular gas cost $2.909 a gallon at the time, but the mart was only selling premium fuel at higher prices. Moving forward, Jack’s is required to install software that properly tracks fuel costs and usage.
Stein has launched 11 lawsuits against 27 defendants since 2018 under North Carolina’s price-gouging statute. Fourteen judgments have amounted to $1,080,000 against 25 defendants; it also includes the largest price-gouging settlement in the department’s history at $274,000.
“Any would-be price gougers should take note: just don’t do it,” Stein said in a release.
North Carolina’s price-gouging law is currently in effect, as Gov. Roy Cooper has declared a state of emergency for both the Covid-19 pandemic and winter storms that have plagued the state over the past week. Price-gouging complaints can be filed through the North Carolina Department of Justice at ncdoj.gov/gouging or by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.
Customers who stopped at Jack’s In & Out and overpaid for premium fuel on May 11, 2021, are still eligible for restitution. Claims can be made by emailing PGSettlements@ncdoj.gov.
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