Consumer Law

Cheap bus ticket included a trip to small-claims court for unwary students

A 50-cent bus fare purchased by a University of Illinois student for a November 2011 trip to visit a friend at Illinois State University got a lot more expensive when, more than a year later, the bus company sent him a demand letter by Federal Express.

It said Ryan Tompkins owed an additional $138.35, because he had used the Suburban Express ticket on the wrong date, the Chicago Tribune (sub. req.) reports.

That broke down to $8 for the full fare he should have paid, a $100 convenience charge and $30.35 in collection costs. If he disputed the charge in small claims court, another $200 in fees could apply, the letter stated.

Tompkins refused to pay what he considered an unfair charge—the bus company should have refused to accept the ticket if it was for the wrong date, he contends—and he, like at least another 123 other customers during the past six months, was sued by the company for allegedly misusing his ticket. Other claims included passengers getting on the wrong bus, or seeking an improper refund for an unused ticket, the newspaper recounts.

Terms of the transportation contract listed on the company’s website at the time the tickets were purchased included not only a $100 charge for using an invalid, altered or duplicate ticket but a $500 charge for “disruptive behavior.”

The company attempted to assess a $500 fine against a University of Illinois graduate student, Jeremy Leval, after he complained on Facebook about what he said was rude behavior by a bus driver, including a lawsuit against him for “liquidated damages” among 71 it filed in a single day in Ford County, Illinois, the newspaper recounts.

The county, which was stated to be the “agreed venue for any legal action” in the online contract terms, is a half-hour drive from Champaign, where the U of I is located. A student legal services department at the university provides in-court representation, but only for cases in Champaign County.

But the power of the court of public opinion apparently trumped the bus company’s state-court claims. Following outraged calls to the office of the state attorney general and others, the company withdrew all of its Ford County suits and changed the terms and conditions on its website Monday to eliminate the $100 and $500 fine provisions, as well as the Ford County choice-of-venue provision.

“We recognized that this legal approach of trying to uphold our agreement with customers carries with it a negative perception that we do not intend,” said the company’s owner, Dennis Toeppen, in an email to the Tribune.

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