Saturday, August 11, 2012

When class action lawsuits go bad!

$31 ticket leads to a $70,000 legal bill

By Tim Alamenciak
Staff Reporter
Friday, August 10, 2012
Doctor Anna Marie Arensen launched a class action suit on behalf of others who found themselves ticketed because of a malfunctioning machine. The class action was dismissed last month and Arenson received a bill for more than $70,000 from the city for its legal costs. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star)

A Toronto doctor is appealing a $70,537 legal bill from the City of Toronto after she launched a failed class-action lawsuit over a $31 parking ticket.

The suit, which pointed the finger at the city over malfunctioning pay-and-display machines, was dismissed as being too broad for a class action.

But it highlights a bug in the system that spells hassles for drivers across the city. Should a driver be lucky enough to snag a parking spot, it may be for naught if the meter refuses to dispense a ticket. According to a city bylaw, it’s the driver’s responsibility to find another machine.

Dr. Anna Marie Arenson, a radiologist at Sunnybrook Hospital, launched the suit in 2008 after she encountered a malfunctioning parking machine in the middle of a blizzard in 2007. Frustrated after trying several times to pay, Arenson said she parked her car anyway, went to a restaurant and emerged from it to find a dreaded yellow slip on her windshield. She paid the ticket but launched the suit to make a point.

Parking ticket machines are designed to wirelessly relay a signal back to the Toronto Parking Authority when they break. The authority then shuts the meter down and dispatches a repair crew. Arenson said this didn’t happen in her case.

“It wasn’t just a fluke that the machine (broke) — this is a systemic problem,” said Ken Arenson, her lawyer and ex-husband.

An engineer Arenson enlisted said it’s possible for the notification system to malfunction at the same time as other parts.

According to Gwyn Thomas, president of the TPA, about 30 — or 1 percent — of the agency’s 3,000 machines require servicing each day.

“(Response time) varies, but we try to dispatch men as quickly as we can …Typically we try to have them done well within the day,” Thomas said. “There are a couple of minor issues that they won’t send a signal on, but generally just about every one of them.”

But engineer Robert Sparling analyzed one of the parking meters and determined that condensation could cause the machine and the notification system to fail at the same time, according to court records.

“This whole automation thing is okay when it works, but when it doesn’t work and you have to go ascertain some sort of relief, it’s made difficult. There’s no two ways about it,” said Brian Lawrie, founder and president of Pointts, a company that advises motorists on matters including parking violations.

Lawrie recommends noting the serial number of the machine, traffic conditions and any witnesses, then notifying officials of the broken machine.

In 2007, 794 tickets were cancelled because of malfunctioning meters, according to court documents. More than 600,000 tickets were issued that year.

“If and when the TPA confirms that a machine was not working at the time of the offence, we may cancel the ticket, although this is also dependent on a number of circumstances,” said Christina Barnes, spokeswoman for the City of Toronto. She said certain circumstances — for instance if it was a first offence, or happened in a high-traffic area — would affect the outcome. But bylaws, she said, require customers to find a different machine or spot if one is broken.

The class action — which began four years ago and saw arguments go all the way to the Supreme Court — was dismissed in July mainly because Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell deemed the class too broad — it would include anyone who received a ticket while parked at a malfunctioning machine, when the action focused on situations where the TPA was not notified.

“It looks bad. It has a chilling effect,” said Ken Arenson. “Thirty-one dollars and it turns into a $70,000 cost order? It doesn’t make sense.”


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