The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

June 30, 2008

After crash, towing price questioned

By Patricia Breakey

Paula Friedman says she is thankful that her son, Chris, survived a fiery accident on June 8, but is still in shock from the $610 towing bill.

Chris Friedman, 24, said he remembers seeing bright lights as he came around a curve on county Route 18 at about 1:30 a.m. He said he doesn't know how he lost control of his truck and hit a tree in Dorothy Daniels' yard.

The impact left Friedman unconscious in the cab of his burning truck until he was pulled from the vehicle by Bruce Voorhees, who heard the crash from his home, deputies said in a media release.

Since Friedman was unable to request a towing company, the Delaware County deputy who responded asked a dispatcher to send the nearest available wrecker to remove the burned truck.

Peter Hamilton, owner of Delhi Motors, received the call for a wrecker from a Delaware County Sheriff's Department dispatcher. He towed Friedman's truck from Stamford to his lot in Delhi.

Two days later, Paula Friedman said Hamilton handed her the $610 bill. She paid the bill, which included a $495 charge for towing, $70 for two days' storage and $45.20 in tax.

Upset at the bill, she said she called two other towing services chosen randomly from the phone book and got quotes of $180 and $250 for removing a truck from an accident scene and towing it about 18 miles.

Both companies gave her a breakdown of the charges for driving to the crash site, dealing with the wrecked vehicle and towing it from the scene.

Friedman said she believes there should be some set standards for towing companies that are dispatched by a police agency.

"People are in dire circumstances, and they have you over a barrel," she said. "There is no oversight on how much a towing company is allowed to charge. Something has slipped through the cracks here."

Calls by a reporter to three other towing services in the area also resulted in estimates that were much lower than the amount Hamilton charged.

Dave Stanton, owner of Dave Stanton Towing and Recovery in Walton, said he has a standard accident-recovery fee of $250, and he doesn't charge storage for the first day. He said he also has set vehicle transport charges based on mileage.

Randy Mowers, owner of Mowers Towing in Oneonta, said he would have charged between $150 and $200 for a tow from Stamford to Delhi.

Ed Alexander, owner of Davenport Auto Service, said he figures his charges by breaking each job down into towing, mileage, labor and whether an extra person is required. He estimated a charge of $220 for Friedman's crash.

"If the sheriff's department allows a tow company to be on the list, they should set some kind of standard charges," Friedman said. "Peter Hamilton's charges are unethical and predatory."

Tower: A lot of factors involved'

Hamilton said his fee was based on the time of the accident, the work and mileage involved, the cost of his equipment and the demand for the service.

"There are very few people doing this, which is proven by the fact that I was called to go to an accident in Stamford. There was no one else available," Hamilton said. "There are a lot of factors involved. If this accident had been at 2 p.m. instead of 2 a.m., it would have been a different story.

"We have been doing this for 30 years," Hamilton said. "It's not easy getting up and going out in the middle of the night, but when they call us we try to get there quickly, reasonably and safely."

Delaware County Undersheriff Doug Vredenburgh said the owner of the vehicle at a crash scene is given an opportunity to choose a towing service. If they are not able to choose, a wrecker is called either through the 911 Center or by a county dispatcher.

"The dispatcher originally called a wrecker out of Stamford for this accident, but that guy had another call, so communications called three or four local wreckers in Grand Gorge, Davenport and Stamford, but there were no answers, so they ended up calling Delhi Motors," Vredenburgh said.

"We have had no complaints about Delhi Motors until now," he said. "If we had several complaints about an operator we would remove them from the towing list, with a recommendation from the county attorney."

Vredenburgh said the sheriff's department is not an agency that determines what private businesses can charge.

Maj. Kevin Molinari, of the state police Troop C at Sidney, said he knew of only one case of price gouging by a towing company. He said an operator that hit a Massachusetts couple with an exorbitant charge was taken out of the rotation list.

Molinari said tow-truck operators must be properly licensed and insured to get on the state police towing list.

"There is an expectation on the part of the public that when the wrecker service is called by a police agency they will be treated honestly and fairly," Molinari said. "There is an inferred connection between the police and the wrecker operator, so we would look at any reported price gouging on a case-by-case basis."

Schoharie County Sheriff John S. Bates Jr. and Otsego County Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. both said they have a policy of calling the nearest available wrecker, and neither was aware of any complaints of price gouging.

"If the issue was raised, there would be a possibility of the operator being taken off the list," Bates said. "But in general, motorist protection is handled by the Better Business Bureau or the state Attorney General's office."

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Patricia Breakey can be reached at 746-2894 or at stardelhi@stny.rr.com.