Reona Petersen, a 71-year-old widow from Bountiful, couldn’t afford the $10,000 estimate a plumber gave her to repair her sewage line.
Petersen, whose husband passed away just over a year ago, called the South Davis Sewer District for help after being pressured into the deal by the plumber in May 2011. Dal Waymont, general manager of the South Davis Sewer District, had her sewer line inspected for damage. There wasn’t any.
“That’s not uncommon that we go out and check the problem and there is nothing there,” Waymont said about bids residents get for sewer problems.
Vulnerable consumers, like Petersen, often fall victim to predatory contractors who charge more for a problem that is either a cheap fix or doesn’t exist. But the state has safety nets in Utah law for those who are taken advantage of.
Waymont said he sees as many as half a dozen cases a year where homeowners are charged unreasonable prices.
The total cost for the South Davis Sewer District to repair a sewage line on a home is between $3,000 and $4,000, Waymont said. Private contractors are charging thousands of dollars more.
“You see this for so long and you get so mad about it,” Waymont said. “We ask people to call us first. We don’t care if it’s our problem or not. We’re happy to come out, and if it’s not our problem we can tell them what the problem is.”
Signing an expensive service contract does not necessarily mean that all hope, and money, is lost. There are laws in place that protect consumers even after the unreasonable deal has been made.
A provision in the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act says that any unconscionable, or unreasonable, act or practice by a supplier violates the act.
Both parties are able to state their cases, but it’s ultimately left up to the courts to determine whether the supplier was being unreasonable. This includes, but is not specific to, price gouging.
Many of the cases, like the ones seen in South Davis County and elsewhere, fall under this provision, but many people either aren’t aware it exists or are too afraid to use it.
“I think that this statute applies to a lot more transaction and contracts that are out there than lawsuits that are brought up,” said Chris Peterson, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of law at the S.J. Quincy College of Law at the University of Utah.
The statute often goes underutilized in the state because there are a limited number of attorneys.
“There aren’t that many attorneys who have been able to find a way to make a living bringing cases on behalf of working-class or middle-income families to deal with these kinds of problems,” said Peterson, who is currently working on a case that involves this statute.
An upside to the Sales Practices Act is it includes fee shifting, which means that the defendant who loses the case pays the plaintiff’s attorney, but it can go both ways.
A plaintiff must pay the defendant's lawyer if the court deems the case groundless or frivolous, a clause that scares most consumers away from using the statute.
“Consumers can’t tell if their case is groundless,” Peterson said. “The threat of that chills their ability to bring legitimate cases.”
Some state officials also say that a lot of these cases are considered unreasonable and consumers may fall under protection of state statute.
Tracy Gunderson, director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, also said that cases like the one with Reona Petersen likely fall under the unconscionable act or practice statute.
“I would encourage people to file a complaint with our office so that we can do something about it,” said Gunderson, who has been a lawyer for 10 years and used to work in the Utah Attorney General’s Office. “That’s something we would really want to take a look at and see where we could help out.”
Some contractors may take advantage of homeowners in emergency situations, but homeowners should always get at least three bids even in dire cases so they aren’t being taken advantage of, Gunderson said.
The Utah Department of Consumer Protection ranked “home improvement/repair” as the seventh most complained about industry in the state.
Angie’s List, a website where users can rate contractors in order to find reputable work, released a list of complaints about the plumbing industry in a statement to the Deseret News.
Some of the price-gouging included overcharging for unclogging toilets and replacing garbage disposals.
“As with any home improvement service, finding a reputable plumber and storing that person’s contact information before you have a plumbing emergency is the best way to be sure you’re getting a good repair at a fair price,” said Angie’s List founder Angie Hicks. “If you feel your plumber is trying to charge you too much for a toilet repair, don’t just give in because you feel you need the job done right away. Take the time to research local companies that have a good reputation and seek out a second or third opinion. There are plenty of great plumbers in town. Find one you trust and keep him or her.”
Waymont said widows, the elderly and young families are the ones most taken advantage of, and that’s why he wants to help.
“We have no political or legal obligation,” Waymont said. “But they are taxpayers. It’s a business we’re supposed to know about, and so we feel at least morally, if not ethically, that we should help.”