Column: He’s a crimefighter. He’s in a wheelchair. But to AAA, he’s just a rulebreaker
North Hills resident Harlan Hobbs reached out to me the other day to complain that his AAA membership had been unfairly canceled because of what the roadside-assistance organization termed “excessive service demands.”
Hobbs, 45, who is paralyzed from the chest down, wondered if he wasn’t being discriminated against because of his disability — the added cost and hassle of providing help to someone with special needs and a bulky electric wheelchair.
For the record:
8:15 AM, Jun. 18, 2019An earlier version of this column said the Chatsworth police chief characterized Harlan Hobbs’ role in apprehending a murderer as “helpful but not essential.” The Los Angeles police chief characterized Hobbs’ role that way.
“His disability had nothing to do with this,” responded Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. And I believe him.
But the more I looked into the situation, the more it appeared that Hobbs was indeed getting the short end of the stick, just not for the reason he thought.
Rather, the unfairness lay in AAA’s interpretation and enforcement of membership terms that appear to contradict the group’s stated goals.
Allow me to stipulate up front that I’m a longtime AAA member and I think the service is pretty great, worth every penny. Flat tires, dead batteries — I’m grateful for the peace of mind these guys provide.
I should also acknowledge that Hobbs isn’t your ordinary AAA member. Some families might own several vehicles. Hobbs has nearly two dozen.
There’s a reason for this. But to understand why, you have to go back to 2011.
That’s when Hobbs helped capture Brent Zubek, a nasty piece of work now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering a man and woman whose bodies were found behind a Chatsworth house the three had shared.
I don’t mind saying, helping nab a killer is a heck of a resume item for a guy who’s been in a wheelchair since 2002, when his car got T-boned in an intersection.
Long story short, Hobbs had been friendly with Zubek’s girlfriend. After Zubek went on the lam following the discovery of the bodies, Hobbs told her Zubek was welcome to use his Jeep to get away.
What he didn’t tell her was that, working with investigators, he’d planted a tracking device on the vehicle. Zubek was arrested thanks to the tracker after 10 days on the run.
Although the Los Angeles police chief characterized Hobbs’ role in the case as being “helpful but not essential,” Hobbs received a $75,000 reward for helping apprehend the murderer.
“I’ve always loved cars,” he told me, which explains why he used the reward money to set up his own company, Studio Picture Cars, to provide wheels for music videos and other productions.
Most of those vehicles are meant to stand in for marked and unmarked police cars. So Hobbs has a bunch of Ford Crown Victorias on hand.
Think of pretty much any movie or TV show where the cops arrive at a crime scene. Chances are, they were driving a Crown Vic.
So Hobbs got a letter in March from AAA informing him that his membership was being canceled because of the aforementioned “excessive service demands.”
“This has been determined to be detrimental to the welfare, standing or best interest of the Auto Club or to other members,” AAA said.
The group’s member guide says those are the conditions that can trigger a membership cancellation.
It also says that “each Auto Club cardholder is entitled to four (4) Roadside Assistance service calls or reimbursements per membership year at no charge, subject to the service limitations and conditions in this guide. There will be a service charge for each additional service call after the fourth service call or reimbursement.”
In Hobbs’ case, his family of three made 24 service calls from 2016 through 2018. Thirteen of those calls were made by Hobbs, who has equipped various trucks and vans with hand controls so he can drive himself. Most of the calls involved breakdowns that required a tow to a repair shop.
According to service logs provided to Hobbs by AAA, he exceeded his annual allotment of four calls just once, in 2017, when he sought help five times.
Spring, the AAA spokesman, said the number of calls wasn’t why Hobbs’ use of the service was deemed “excessive.” Rather, he said, it was because Hobbs seemed to be using AAA not just for personal vehicles but also commercial vehicles.
“We saw the membership being used in a way that the membership wasn’t intended to be used,” Spring said.
For example, he said, the 24 service calls over three years involved at least 18 vehicles, including a number of Crown Vics. This suggests, in light of Hobbs’ business, that the vehicles were being used for commercial purposes, Spring said.
I put that to Hobbs.
“My family members were driving my Crown Vics,” he responded. “But they weren’t driving them to or from a set. They were just driving cars I owned. Why should they buy their own cars when I have a bunch of cars around?”
I pointed out that his cars seemed to break down a lot.
“I buy cheap cars,” Hobbs replied. “That’s business.”
The thing is, while I’m sympathetic to AAA’s desire that members use the service for personal vehicles, the organization’s member guide tells a different story.
Under the heading “Eligible Vehicles,” it says that “automobiles, pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, vans, minivans and light-utility motor vehicles (including rented and commercial passenger vehicles, but excluding taxicabs, limousines, shuttles and other vehicles-for-hire) are eligible for those services.”
Read that again: Including commercial passenger vehicles.
The excluded vehicles clearly represent only “vehicles-for-hire” such as taxis and limos.
If anyone wants to argue that Hobbs’ cars constitute “vehicles-for-hire” (which, technically, they do), why explicitly state that “commercial passenger vehicles” in general are considered eligible? AAA is obviously defining vehicles-for-hire as taxis and shuttles, and that’s it.
I laid all this out for Spring.
“It could be argued that way,” he conceded after a moment’s reflection. “But we’re not seeing it like that.”
He cited a provision lower down in the member guide stating that “an individual’s Auto Club membership may not be used by a business or organization to provide roadside assistance service for its customers, employees or vehicles.”
I noted that the calls were made not by Hobbs’ customers or employees but by his family members.
“I can see how you’re saying they were for personal use,” Spring said. “But from our perspective, they weren’t.”
Hobbs appealed his membership cancellation. The only response he received from AAA was a check the other day for $113.75, representing a prorated refund of his membership dues for the year.
I suggested a compromise to AAA: How about if they ended coverage for Hobbs’ family but maintained an individual plan for his indisputably personal vehicles, the ones with the hand controls.
The guy’s doing his best to be self-sufficient, after all, and he’s a friggin’ crimefighter.
Spring kicked that upstairs. He then sent me an email saying that while “the Auto Club is sympathetic to his disability,” it wouldn’t reinstate Hobbs’ membership.
“We can provide Mr. Hobbs with the names and phone numbers of highly qualified tow companies in our regional network that he can contact directly to arrange for service should the need arise,” Spring said. “These contractors can provide service to disabled motorists and their vehicles.”
Well, that’s something, I suppose.
In the meantime, AAA may want to think about revising its member guide.
There’s a loophole for commercial vehicles in there big enough to drive a Crown Vic through.
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