After years of complaints from outraged consumers, including many tourists, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed suit Thursday against a rental car company for allegedly deceiving motorists and charging "grossly inflated" fees.
Bondi sued Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, accusing the company of gouging its customers by charging a $15-a-day "administrative fee" to renters who were unable to pay a highway toll at one of Florida's many "cashless" toll booths where no personnel are on hand to accept toll payments.
Bondi's office says the company's practices violate Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
To avoid those excessive fees, the lawsuit states, Dollar Thrifty customers can purchase its transponder service, called PlatePass.
That costs $10.49 a day, and is charged even if the driver does not pass through any toll booths.
"We are seeking restitution for all affected consumers," Bondi said in a statement, "but the ultimate amount and extent of restitution will be for the court to decide." She said she expected the court to set up a claims process for consumers to seek restitution.
The Times/Herald began reporting on the growing anger and frustration among drivers three years ago.
In a statement, Bondi's office said Dollar Thrifty "misrepresents charges for cashless tolls as fines or violations, and bills customers a grossly-inflated fee for each toll incurred. Dollar Thrifty charges $10 to $15 each time one of its rental car customers drives through a Florida cashless toll and up to $105 during the course of a rental."
The lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court in Jacksonville, says that Dollar Thrifty reduced the maximum administrative fee for a rental to $90.
Dollar Thrifty declined to comment on the lawsuit.
For the past three years, a lawsuit against Dollar Thrifty on behalf of a potential 900,000 customers has been pending in U.S. District Court in Miami. U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez has set a November trial date.
That case, Marshall Maor vs. Dollar Thrifty, claims that Dollar Thrifty charged its Florida customers $43.8 million in administrative fees alone since 2010, including $22 million since 2013.
Disgruntled customers continue to tell their horror stories.
"To be frank, it's called blackmail," tourist Susan Leung wrote to the Times/Herald last year. Driving between Tampa and Orlando, she said she was charged $32 for failing to pay tolls that amounted to less than $3. "Why is the administrative fee $15 if everything is electronic?"
Rune Wagenitz Sorensen lives in Denmark, and recently returned home after a vacation trip to Miami, Key West, Fort Myers and Orlando.
“I was charged $146 for a rental period of 18 days, which I discovered when returning the car,” Sorensen wrote to the Times/Herald. “I have been in contact a couple of times demanding my money back from Thrifty. After two e-mails, they stop responding and avoid answering my questions directly.”
Bondi's office last year reached out-of-court settlements to resolve consumer complaints against three other companies: Avis, Budget and Payless.
As complaints began to pile up in 2015 and 2016, the rental car industry's practices got the attention of the Florida Legislature — but only briefly. Lawmakers considered a law to place limits on the toll charges, but they decided not to take any action.
The lawsuit, which covers the period from 2014 to 2018, also accuses Dollar Thrifty of pressuring its customers to buy damage waivers to cover the cost of a customer's liability in case of a car accident. But the suit noted that many customers' insurance policies already provide coverage for such accidents.
Dollar Thrifty is owned by Hertz, but Hertz was not named as a defendant in the case. Gov. Rick Scott celebrated Hertz's decision to move its corporate headquarters from northern New Jersey to Estero, near Fort Myers, three years ago.