Bus firm's lawsuits criticized

PAXTON — A Champaign bus company contends that Ford County is the proper venue for the 104 small-claims cases it has filed since November — the majority against University of Illinois students — for violations of the company's "terms and conditions."

But an attorney representing one of the defendants says the venue is not only improper but appears to be a strategic move by the company — Suburban Express Inc. — "to make it difficult for the people to defend themselves."

And the Illinois Student Senate agrees, according to Tim Knudsen, a law student from Wheaton who serves as student body vice president external.

One issue, Knudsen said, is that with the cases being filed at the courthouse in Paxton — about 30 miles from the UI campus — the students named as defendants are not eligible to receive free representation from the UI's Student Legal Services, which only offers such assistance for cases filed in Champaign County.

"So therefore, it costs more to get an attorney to go to Ford County to try to defend yourself than it would to just pay the fine," Knudsen said. "The strategy on their end seems completely malicious."

Also, many of the cases were filed years after an alleged violation of the bus service's "terms and conditions," meaning some students may have graduated since then and are no longer in the area to show up in court as required, Knudsen said. Many of the defendants are international students, he noted.

The possibility that many students do not have a means of transportation to get to Ford County is another issue, Knudsen said. Of the 104 cases, eight judgments have been entered — usually after the defendants failed to appear in court.

Knudsen said the student senate discussed the lawsuit issue at a meeting Wednesday and plans to send a letter to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to explain the situation and ask for assistance. The student senate is also considering as a backup plan a potential lawsuit against the charter bus service.

"However, that would cost a big chunk of change," Kundsen said about the latter option, "and we are not going to do that unless it is completely necessary."

The student senate has also discussed the possibility of asking Student Legal Services to expand its jurisdiction to outside Champaign County, but Knudsen said that likely will not happen for quite some time, adding, "it's more of a trustee issue than a Student Senate issue."

Violations alleged

Colleen Ramais, an attorney from the Meyer Capel law firm in Champaign, which is representing Suburban Express, said the small-claims cases allege the violation of terms and conditions each passenger must agree to before buying a ticket online.

Ramais said some of the alleged violations are related to students buying their tickets online, then printing out multiple copies of the tickets and allowing others to use them. Another issue has been students using tickets on the incorrect dates, or altering the dates listed on the printed copy, she said.

The company's terms and conditions specify that passengers "agree to pay the applicable full fare plus $100 for each valid, altered or duplicate ticket collected, and authorize us to charge your credit card for same."

Some people who have had charges added to their credit cards as a result of violations have failed to pay the fine, Ramais added.

An emailed statement from Suburban Express on Thursday stated: "We have a few very simple rules: Bring a printed ticket. Don't try to get on a bus you can't get a ticket for because it's sold out by using a ticket for another date. Don't try to get two rides when you have only paid for one. Don't try to ride with a counterfeit ticket.

"Most people find these rules quite reasonable, and most follow them. Unfortunately, about 1/10th of 1 percent of our customers choose to try to cheat us."

Dispute over venue

The bus company, owned by Dennis E. Toeppen of Champaign, filed its first small-claims complaint in Ford County in November 2012. The company's terms and conditions specify that Ford County is the designated venue for any legal action, according to court documents.

The company indicated in an email to the Paxton Record that it feels the location is more convenient for some students than Champaign County is.

"We file in Ford County because of the wide open court calendar, easy parking and service with a smile," a statement from Suburban Express said. "Additionally, all but one of our pending court dates are during the summer, and Paxton is closer for those traveling from Chicago than Champaign would be. For those who stay in Champaign, Zipcars are readily available; call the MTD for information."

Meanwhile, Lincolnshire attorney David E. Schaper, who is representing one of the 104 defendants, argued in court documents, citing the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, that the proper venue for these cases is either "in the county where the defendant resides or in the county where the transaction occurred out of."

Schaper has filed a motion for his client, Catherine Martin of Deerfield, requesting that the case be transferred to Lake County.

In October 2010, Martin purchased a one-way ticket — from Champaign-Urbana to Northbrook — for her teenage daughter, who was visiting the university. She used a credit card to buy the ticket for $26.45 on the Suburban Express website, according to court documents. But the bus never showed up, so subsequently her credit card company reversed the charge to her card because no services were provided.

In January, she received a debt-collection demand for $75 from Suburban Express' office in Lisle, Schaper said.

Suburban Express said in a response filed in court that the venue is proper, because the company's terms and conditions that Martin agreed to state Ford County is the venue. The response added that the Suburban Express website requires customers to read the terms and conditions prior to completing the transaction.

Judge Steve Pacey considered the motion for transfer of venue earlier this week in Ford County Circuit Court. According to Schaper, Pacey made no ruling but had some questions for the Suburban Express attorney.

"He asked, 'If you put Anchorage, Alaska, in this contract, could you make all these cases go to Anchorage, Alaska?' Schaper said.

"That's essentially their position: 'We can pick anywhere we want to go, and because you agreed to buy our ticket, you agreed to go anywhere we specified.'"

Numbers to consider

Of the cases that have had judgments entered, penalties have ranged from $127 plus filing and service fees to $242 plus fees. Seven of the cases have been dismissed after settlements were reached, while one was dismissed because that case was filed by Toeppen, rather than an attorney. Seven defendants have trials set.

The Ford County circuit clerk's office has received almost $5,000 in filing fees from cases filed by Suburban Express.

"As a circuit clerk's office, we file whatever anybody brings to us. All it's doing is bringing money to us," Ford County Circuit Clerk Kim Evans said Thursday, noting her office receives $47 per complaint. "It's our job to serve Ford County, and if that means bringing us 400 files, we file them."

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spangwurfelt wrote on April 26, 2013 at 7:04 am

Time to end this guy's shakedown scheme. All he's doing is convincing students not to use his service.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on April 26, 2013 at 8:04 am
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Yes.

 

In so many ways, this is the awesomest of unbelievable local news stories.

 

The class actions attorneys of Illinois are now realizing their major mistake: not citing themselves in counties where there aren't any people.

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 12:04 am

And their parents who frequently pay for the tickets, or at least their child's student education.

spangwurfelt wrote on April 26, 2013 at 9:04 am

For every buck he's jimmying from Suzy from Skokie, he's probably going to lose ten or twenty in future ticket sales. Suicidally stooopid strategy. What fool would buy a ticket from this guy now, now that his shakedown scheme is out in the open?

Joe American wrote on April 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

The only ones who wouldn't buy a ticket are those who are looking to cheat the system, whom the owner states is " about 1/10th of 1 percent of our customers.", and maybe those who are sympathetic to those who do. 

So which category do you fall under?

bradchad wrote on April 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm

 

Wow, you really didn't even read the article huh? First off, just because someone is sued does not mean they are guilty. Second, if you did read the article, you would have read the case of Catherine Martin of Deerfield, who hadn't even done anything wrong, because there was no bus to even get on. How is she a cheater????

Well? How?!

wayward wrote on April 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm

So which category do you fall under?

Oh I dunno.  Maybe the "smart enough not to do business with you" category?

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 12:04 am

Many of these cases are where the driver accepted the wrong tickets by not looking at them, and yet provided access to the vehicle's doorway, chose to drive and transport the people, and dropped them all off, all the while having the wrong ticket to turn in to their company for revenue accounting later.  This is the carrier's fault for using a ticketing system improperly, as other companies for hundreds of years have managed to use paper ticketing systems with few problems.

Some cases are where the carrier themself canceled or annulled runs - and rather than reaccommodating them on other services for the same fare (as any airline or Amtrak do), are penalizing passenger 150$.  This is also the carrier's fault, if they annul a service, they either need to refund the ticket or reaccommodate the passenger.

Some of these cases are claimed for incidents as old as from 2011.  Just now being filed.  As Mr. Toeppen was quoted in other news articles and on Suburban Express's website, they are clearing out a backlog of 1.5 yrs.

Some cases ARE "theft of services" such as duplicitive tickets, counterfeit tickets, or no tickets.  AS SUCH, theft is a criminal process, and can be filed with the police and prosecuted as criminal cases of theft.

In any case, civil lawsuits, claiming passengers are stealing from the carrier, seem dubious, at best.

I used to work for Amtrak & Metra, and we never sue customers after the travel, IF OUR CONDUCTOR TOOK THE WRONG TICKET AND ALLOWED THE TRAVEL.

We as employees were responsible for turning in our correct tickets and monies for revenue accounting, and any shortages were charged back to the employees by our Revenue Accounting Department, when we took the wrong tickets and it was our error.

Incidents of theft, ie "trespassing" as well, could be prosecuted for both trespass on RR private property (as RR land is not owned by any government) as well as theft of service.  

And those cases went through the police and the criminal court system.

Orbiter wrote on April 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

We need more competition for intercity bus services.  Especially given the non-student prices Lex charges for a trip to Chicago! I realized early on that the local coach services were scam-artists and have been fortunate enough to be able to avoid patronizing them. Between the sleazy bus operations and the ever-tardy Amtrak runs, is it any wonder so many choose to drive to Chicagoland? No wonder at all.

wayward wrote on April 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

Yeah, and Greyhound seems to be even slower and more limited than Amtrak in terms of Champaign-Chicago service.  I agree that a reputable bus service from C-U to Chicago and the suburbs would be a great thing.

Nice Davis wrote on April 27, 2013 at 11:04 am

Surely you're joking? Greyhound runs several buses up to their Chicago terminal each day. I ride it frequently and usually pay $11 one way. Buses are rarely unclean and I've only arrived late once (and then by 15 minutes).

wayward wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Maybe my mistake -- I was looking for a bus that went to Union Station where Amtrak and the Metra stop, and searched on "Chicago Amtrak."  There weren't a lot of options with that, and they were pretty slow.  When I searched on "Chicago, IL," there were a lot more options with more reasonable travel time.  Yes, Greyhound seems pretty professional and I've heard that Peoria Charter seems to have it together as well.  So students do have some decent choices.

wayward wrote on April 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

He's apparently filed multiple lawsuits in Champaign County, and I wonder if he feels like he's worn out his welcome there.

Joe American wrote on April 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

If you can't pay the fine, don't do the crime.

I have to question the ethics of many using this forum as it's pretty simple - every student who cheated them should be held accountable with or without their little legal nanny's holding their hands and trying to convince the judges otherwise.

The only ones this affects is the ones who tried to cheat someone else.

bradchad wrote on April 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Wow, you really didn't even read the article huh? First off, just because someone is sued does not mean they are guilty. Second, if you did read the article, you would have read the case of Catherine Martin of Deerfield, who hadn't even done anything wrong, because there was no bus to even get on. How is she a cheater????

Well? How?!

rsp wrote on April 26, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Hey Joe, you use this forum don't you?

outoftownie wrote on April 27, 2013 at 12:04 am

Seriously, Joe American, just so that you get it because I have noticed that sometimes you do not:

If you charge for a service and then do not perform said service, you do not get to sue someone for not paying for the service.

The article says says that was the case. If the bus service did not pick up the person at the assigned location, then why does it get to sue for not doing its job?

No really, the rest of us would like to know why.

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

Any one who "cheats" the ticketing system as theft, such as duplicitive tickets, counterfeit tickets, or no tickets (ie stowaways or trespassers) - those are all theft, and as such, can be prosecuted as CRIMINAL cases, not in a civil lawsuit.

IlliniStudent123 wrote on April 26, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I am someone who knows a couple of the students who are being sued. The infractions are not all they appear to be.

Story 1: One student I know was sued becuase a bus was overbooked, (s)he was told to go on a different bus, and gave his/her ticket to get on the bus. This was considered a "fake" ticket.

Story 2: Another student's bus never showed up, so, (s)he cancelled the charge on his/her credit card. This student then received a bill for "damages" which eventually resulted in a lawsuit. 

Additionally, the bus driver is allowing students on the bus even if he/she sees the ticket is "fake" (as they call it). This would NEVER fly on a plane (no pun intended) nor ride on a train (pun intended).

The truth to what is really going on here will show. This company has been getting away with this for too long. Intimidating tactics no longer work with a technologically literate generation and something called the "Streisand Effect". Anything this bus company does will be posted, as has been seen on Reddit.com. I encourage everyone to take a look and search "Suburban Express" on Reddit.com, especially the one where Suburban Express sends a "cease and desist" letter attempting to surpress the moderator's 1st amendment rights. I also suggest you review the filtered reviews on Yelp.

Looking at these resources should provide much much more clarity on what a scam this really is. 

wayward wrote on April 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Could people who've gotten scammed by Toeppen and Suburban Express start complaining to the Attorney General's office?  I'd guess that going after him would score Lisa Madigan a lot of points down here.

IlliniStudent123 wrote on April 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm

The students are way ahead of you.

Many students have notified the Attorney General, Chicago Tribune, and other outlets. The Illinois Student Senate is also drafting a personal letter to the Attorney General on behalf of the students.

This will be handled accordingly, I can assure you that.

HOWEVER, that being said, the University of Illinois needs to take a stand AND PROTECT these students. As of now, they have sat idol...and that, in my opinion, is the real crime here.

THESE STUDENTS NEED LEGAL REPRESENTATION!

Also, here are Suburban Express' "Terms & Conditions": http://imgur.com/e0FJZmR

rsp wrote on April 26, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Just wondering, what about going after their ability to accept the credit cards, considering they may be in violation of those terms. Plus, don't the card companies have some legal coverage?

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

Already being done.

PARENTS or other payors of tickets are also able to contact the Atty General.  Many times, it is the Parent's credit card that is used to pay for tickets, and the Parent's credit card is the one that gets the 150$ or 575$ charges, because it is the one on file.

So if any parents who have paid for their passenger's tickets and had these chargebacks from the carrier, also have the right to file complaints, as it is their money at stake.

 

GeneralLeePeeved wrote on April 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Wow, the N-G moved this story off of the front page of the website quickly!  ..what's the matter, afraid someone might call out Meyer Capel for defending sleaze?  Lawyers always wonder why people hold low opinions of them and make jokes....well, duh, if you're gonna lie down with dogs, you're gonna get up with fleas!

sameeker wrote on April 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Funny how corporations are the ones complaining that there is a problem with lawsuits, unless it is they that want to sue. As for Joe American, filing a suit does not automaticly make the defendent guilty. If this is an ongoing problem of fraud, then why hasn't the bus company changes it's system to stop it? I see a shady lawyer and bus operator working here. Since when does a lawyer care about "service with a smile" unless that smile comes with a nod from the good old boys network.

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

NO other carrier, whether it be bus, train, or plane, seems to be having all of these problems with their ticket system.

In fact, Peoria Charter Coach put out a statement the other day that they have not sued passengers, and that they also have no pending lawsuits against passengers.

Transportation security has been beefed up considerably since 9/11.  Other carriers like airlines and Amtrak have had to implement tight passenger-manifest lists, and they are able to somehow collect the right tickets for the right days for the right directions every time.

In fact, for most intercity carriers, even buses, passenger name manifests are recommended or required, for transport security, as well as for emergency responses for when there are crashes or other emergencies.  

Only one carrier seems to claim difficulty with reading passenger tickets to determine that the right person is on the right bus in the right direction on the right day.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

 

wayward wrote on April 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Toeppen's now threatening someone on Reddit as well: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/04/express-to-internet-hate-bus-company-threatens-redditor-with-lawsuit/ .  Making friends all over the place.

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

These threats have happened before, as well as this week.

I have been shown "cease and desist" letters sent to several of my friends, when the come to ask me about my transport expertise and what they could or should do about it.

Every single one in the past has caved in, removed their posts, and do not want to be sued, after lawyers like Mr Long (of S Neil St law firm) say that they will be sued.

However, there really are 4 different news stories going on in this case - but it all appeared at the same time, and finally there are people who are willing to stand up, because finally each person has realised that they are not alone in dealing with their problems with this carrier.


story 1 - driver berates chinese student - driver was an employee of subcontractor Green River Lines of Peru IL.  And although Mr Hansen, the owner of Green River Lines, admitted the driver incident, and apologised on behalf of himself and his own company, the Suburban Express went the total opposite direction, denying the incident at first, banning Mr Leval from future services, publicly defaming him on their own website as a "self-aggrandizing and meddling", and he received his 575$ lawsuit on Tuesday.

story 2 - 100+ students being filed against in Ford County, within 4 months.  Questions are arising, even from the judge Mr Pacey himself, as to whether Ford County is the correct venue, let alone the difficulty of people without cars (who would tend to be the ones buying bus tickets in the first place) to get there, and that cases have been scheduled against students to be during spring break in march, and this coming summer break.

story 3 - cease and desist letters multiple times, along with permanent banning from future transport services, of people who post valid trip stories, personal experiences of the carrier, or make negative comments about the carrier, whether it be on Reddit, Yelp, or perhaps some other online sites.

story 4 - the newest cases of threatening to sue moderators of social networks such as Reddit, when in fact social networks are worldwide and moderated by multiple people.


Finally tho', these diverse classes of people have all discovered, within 2 weeks of each other, that these problems are happening to others. 

And finally, I see that people are ready to speak out, together, and expose these stories.

corydesign wrote on April 26, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Goodness! We need a Pied Piper to rid us of these lawyers that think these things up. He could get a good start on Church street. I can't believe these folks sleep at nite.

Importantlocalopinion wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

After twenty plus years in the business, you would think this guy would be smarter than he is. He brought this upon himself by moving the cases to Paxton where the students couldn't get legal help. It was a stupid decision that he is now paying for by the implosion of his company's image. If I was one of his sub-contracting bus companies, I would think seriously about stepping out on my own and being the customer friendly service that the students want right now.

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

Many many of the complaints about the actual passenger experience are stemming over driver issues, such as rude drivers, drivers who don't know directions, drivers who miss exit ramps, and obviously drivers who can't read tickets properly to know what they are accepting and who they are letting on the coach.

A large number of Suburban Express services actually are subcontracted out, and issues of drivers on these types of services reflect on their own employer as well, whose name is on the side of the bus, along with Suburban Express's reputation, as SE is the one who takes the passengers' monies and chooses who to do business with for its subcontractors.

Some subcontractors are good, and some are actually part of the problem.

It will be up to each of these carriers and their owners to determine if they are the firm that could be successful on its own, or if they are part of the problem and will fail.
 

It is all about business choices.  Suburban Express made theirs.

Now it is time for the passengers to make theirs.

And with 9 intercity carriers in C-U everyday, there is no dearth of competition that can absorb the number of passengers that choose to use any of the other 8.

IlliniStudent123 wrote on April 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

I slightly disagree.

As seen on Yelp, the owner, Dennis Toeppen, appears to have the mouth of a sailor cussing at students all of the time. Additionally, he takes it upon himself to personally "ban" students.

Drivers are only half the issue...but the main issue starts with Mr. Toeppen.

rivardau wrote on April 27, 2013 at 2:04 am

Here is a cease-and-desist letter written just this week to someone about the Reddit postings.

Here is your proof that these tactics ARE happening from a lawyer as a way to intimidate students into NOT speaking out.

 

http://imgur.com/a/OYasT

 

rsp wrote on April 27, 2013 at 8:04 am

"I doubt you have proof of your thoughts"? Did they bother to think about that before they sent it? And this is from someone with a law degree? 

Loren Anderson wrote on April 27, 2013 at 10:04 am
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Eventually, everyone gets off the bus.  Even Dennis Toeppen.

After 30 years on the bus, Suburban Express has reached its stop.

wayward wrote on April 29, 2013 at 10:04 am
wayward wrote on April 29, 2013 at 11:04 am