Bus company promises to drop Ford lawsuits

Bus company promises to drop Ford lawsuits

PAXTON — In response to a backlash from University of Illinois students, a Champaign charter bus service has pledged to dismiss all 124 small-claims cases it has filed in Ford County Circuit Court for alleged violations of the company's "terms and conditions" — many of which were against UI students.

"We decided over the weekend to voluntarily drop all of the lawsuits in Ford County," stated an email Monday from Dennis E. Toeppen of Champaign, president of Suburban Express Inc.

"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. Instead, we will look at other ways of communicating and upholding the terms and conditions of our ticket-purchase agreement, which is designed to ensure convenience and efficiency for all of our customers."

Toeppen added that he is in the process of revising the terms and conditions of purchasing tickets. A notice posted Monday on the Suburban Express website said the terms are being revised "in response to our changed understanding of market sentiments."

Toeppen's decision to have the lawsuits dismissed came on the same day that Ford County Judge Steve Pacey entered an order in favor of a change of venue for one of the cases.

Pacey said in his order that it is "obvious" that having Ford County serve as the venue would be an "inconvenience" to the defendant, who lives in Lake County. Pacey said the venue is improper because the defendant does not live in Ford County and the transaction was not made in Ford County.

The venue for Suburban Express' 124 lawsuits — the courthouse in Paxton — is almost 30 miles from the UI campus. Some students complained last week that the venue was not only improper — since it was not the county where they reside or where the transaction took place — but also appeared to be a strategy to make it difficult for them to defend themselves.

One issue was that because the cases were filed in Ford County, the many students named as defendants were not eligible to receive free representation from the UI's Student Legal Services, which only offers such assistance for cases filed in Champaign County.

The Illinois Student Senate was preparing to send a letter to the Illinois attorney general's office to explain the situation and ask for assistance.

As of Monday, the attorney general's office had received "about a half dozen inquiries and/or complaints about this company," according to spokesman Scott Mulford.

Suburban Express indicated last week that it filed the cases in Ford County — even though none of the defendants live there or bought a Suburban Express bus ticket there — "because of the wide open court calendar, easy parking and service with a smile." The company added that its "terms and conditions," which each customer must agree to before buying a ticket, had specified that Ford County is the designated venue for any legal action that arises.

Meanwhile, Lincolnshire attorney David E. Schaper, who is representing one of the 124 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."

On Monday, Pacey granted Schaper's motion for a change of venue for his client, Catherine Martin of Deerfield, for the case to be transferred to Lake County.

"The inconvenience of the parties traveling from DuPage, Lake or Champaign counties ... to Ford County, Ill., for a $68.75 claim is obvious," Pacey wrote in his order.

"From reading the decision, you can see that the judge looked at the applicable law and applied the law to our facts," Schaper said Monday.

Also Monday, seven of the Suburban Express cases were dismissed by the law firm representing Suburban Express in its small-claims suits.

Motions for dismissal were filed by Rochelle A. Funderburg of the Meyer Capel law firm in Champaign. The motions, all identical, state the "plaintiffs and defendant have come to a mutual resolution of this claim."

Funderburg declined to comment when reached by email Monday.

"My policy is not to comment on clients' pending matters," Funderburg said.

Seven other cases had been dismissed earlier this year, after settlements were reached, while one was dismissed because that case was filed by Toeppen, rather than an attorney.

It was not immediately clear when the other 110 cases would be dismissed as pledged by Toeppen.

Colleen Ramais, an attorney from the Meyer Capel law firm, said last week that the small-claims cases involved 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 had charges added to their credit cards had those charges removed, Ramais added.

The Suburban Express website was updated Monday with a posting that said: "You asked for it: New terms and conditions."

The terms and conditions, effective Monday, "should be considered interim terms and conditions, as we plan to tweak these more," the site noted.

The mention of Ford County being the venue for legal action was removed. Also removed was the mention of a $100 fine for violations.

"You agree to pay any and all collection costs, including attorney's fees, should collection or other legal action become necessary," the revised terms and conditions stated.

Meanwhile, the attorney general's office encouraged consumers to "let us know" if they have a complaint about a company.

"They can call our hotline at 1-800-243-0618 to ask for a complaint form or download one from our website http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov," Mulford said. "We also have a regional office there in Urbana at 1776 E. Washington."

An emailed statement from Suburban Express last week 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."

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spangwurfelt wrote on April 30, 2013 at 7:04 am

Classic example of someone being forced to realize that his short-term money grab tactics was killing his long-term business. Glad to see the N-G showed this sleezebag for what he is, and he had to do damage control.

SocialinPurple wrote on April 30, 2013 at 8:04 am

I'll just stick to Amtrak or Megabus.

read the DI wrote on April 30, 2013 at 11:04 am

What's funny is that Toeppen launched his bus company as ann undergrad after suing Greyhound for having a monopoly in Champaign -- and winning. He has actually done UofI students a huge service over the years by ensuring competition.

I don't really have an opinion about any of the rest of this, however, except that it seems to me that people should pay for what they use.

billbtri5 wrote on April 30, 2013 at 9:04 am

wouldn't it be a crime to print off multiple tickets if you have only paid for one?...where is the States Attorney on this one?..

IlliniStudent123 wrote on April 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm

From the students being sued that I have spoken to, NONE of them printed "duplicate" tickets.

Once student accidently gave her return ticket instead of the first ticket...and she was charged $100 + the ticket for that ride (she already paid for) + a "fee".

Another student cancelled a charge for a bus THAT NEVER SHOWED UP. Then was charged $100 + the ticket for that ride (she already paid for) + a "fee" for a "dishonored payment".

Another student was SUED FOR $500 for "disruptive behavior" when he stood up for an international student being humiliated. Funny thing is, Dennis' attorney never mentioned that one....hmmm, funny isn't it?

This is a pattern for Dennis' lawsuits. In my opinion, this was just another business model to squeeze money out of students who are already in debt. 

bradchad wrote on April 30, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I think you are confused. Just because you are sued does not mean you are guilty. I have spoke to several of the accused- and none of them copied their tickets and such. I honestly think Suburban Express knows their lawsuites have no merit, but they win because the kids can't defend themselves. 

Next time you post, accusing the students as being criminals, make sure you know they are in fact guilty.

Marti Wilkinson wrote on April 30, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I guess the negative press had much to do with the change of heart. If we had better ways for students to travel, then many of them probably wouldn't feel the need to bring their own personal vehicles to town. Champaign would really benefit from a high speed rail system, but it may be some years before we see that happening.

When I have gone to Chicago in recent years I've been more inclined to drive to a relatives house in the west suburbs, and then take a Metra to the city. I also have friends who live in the area, who are willing to let me drive and park. Last I checked a pass on the Metra for the weekend came out to five dollars.

Sancho Panza wrote on April 30, 2013 at 6:04 pm

The reason for the change of venue was that they were being sued in the wrong county.  In almost every case they should have been sued in Champaign County, or in their parent's county, because that is where they reside or where the transaction was initiated.  Contract terms that violate state law are unenforcable, so the bus owner is not free to pick a random location. 

Shiofra wrote on April 30, 2013 at 6:04 pm

As info, for those who wish to get the rest of this story (article includes link to the original Ars Technica article):  http://www.popehat.com/2013/04/28/suburban-express-took-the-first-bus-to-the-streisand-effect-have-they-disembarked-in-time/