Toll road operators to forgive fines
In a pending court settlement that could affect thousands of motorists, two Orange County toll road agencies have agreed to forgive more than $40 million in fines and pay $1.4 million to a group of drivers who alleged that they were charged excessive penalties for unpaid tolls.
The proposed settlement involves the Orange County Transportation Authority, which owns the 91 Express Lanes on the 91 Freeway, and the Irvine-based Transportation Corridor Agencies, the operator of a 51-mile network of tollways comprising the Eastern, the Foothill and the San Joaquin Hills.
According to court records, both agencies also agreed to pay the motorists’ legal fees of $1.5 million and overhaul their enforcement procedures, including better notification of violators, more time to contest violations and caps on penalties.
Attorneys for both sides and their clients declined to comment on the settlement, which was filed in Orange County Superior Court in October. Instead, they prepared a statement to be released when the agreement is finalized in Orange County Superior Court early next year. In a copy of the remarks, the agencies denied that their past enforcement practices were illegal.
If approved, the agreement will end a three-year court battle that started in January 2007 when 16 motorists sued the agencies. The group alleged that the agencies illegally fined them almost $334,000 for failing to pay about $2,500 in tolls. Toll road users brought other lawsuits in May 2007 and March 2008.
Among the motorists is Rosemarie Sepeda of Riverside County, who alleged that OCTA fined her almost $133,000 for $1,195 in unpaid tolls. Brian and Stephanie Young, also of Riverside County, faced $61,580 in fines for failing to pay $635 in tolls to OCTA.
The lawsuits accused the agencies of violating constitutional protections against excessive fines.
The motorists further alleged that the agencies mishandled their requests to correct mistakes, denied them adequate opportunities to contest penalties and imposed stiff fines for unintentional violations, even when tolls were eventually paid.
Both agencies countered that their enforcement practices were fair and complied with state law, including the California Vehicle Code.
They said that motorists were notified repeatedly about unpaid tolls and had ample opportunity to clear their debts or contest violations before serious penalties were imposed.
The three cases were consolidated into a class action for tollway users who have been fined since Jan. 1, 2003, by TCA and since May 31, 2003, by OCTA. Although there are 16 named plaintiffs, court records state that the settlement could apply to tens of thousands of motorists.
Under the settlement, the OCTA will forgive about $32 million in uncollected fines; the TCA will waive about $9 million in penalties.
Both agencies plan to waive or pay back all the fines imposed on the 16 original plaintiffs as long as they have paid their tolls. Some will receive additional payments of $5,000.
Other motorists who have been fined since early 2003 are eligible to share in a $1.4-million restitution payment. The agencies will forgive 29% of their fines and provide additional hearings so drivers can argue for further reductions in their penalties.
According to the settlement, the agencies have agreed to contact motorists about a toll violation within 10 days instead of 21 days to prevent a cascade of violations until the notices are received.
The length of time to contest a violation will be increased, and motorists will be given a one-time administrative review if they miss deadlines to challenge violations.
When assessing penalties, the agencies will consider honest efforts to clear unpaid tolls and innocent mistakes, such as canceled credit cards and closed bank accounts that had been used to pay tolls under the agencies’ automated billing and payment system.
The settlement requires the maximum fine per toll violation to drop from $500 to $180 while the total fine imposed on a motorist cannot exceed 20 times the amount of the unpaid tolls. Total penalties have gone as high as 52 times the amount of the unpaid tolls, according to court records.