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Tex. Store Chain Rigged Gas Pumps, Hit With $30M Verdict

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on November 11, 2010 8:51 AM

The kind of actions the jury found in this case are just the type the Romans must have had in mind when they coined the phrase "caveat emptor." Of course the Romans didn't have to contend with hundreds of illegally calibrated gas pumps that rip you off.

But that is what Texans had to contend with, found a Harris County jury, when they delivered their verdict against SunMart convenience stores November 9. The gas pumps in question were set to deliver less than, but fully charge for, a gallon of gas.

The $30 million verdict was levied against SunMart parent company Petroleum Wholesale, for illegally setting pumps at 86 stations in Texas to deliver less than the promised amount of gasoline, reports the Houston Chronicle. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called the verdict a "well-deserved rebuke" to the company's fraudulent actions. The attorney general charged the company with violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The Act, as big as the state of Texas, covers a wide range of business practices -- from deceptive ads, to the retail of secondhand watches, to the regulation of dairy containers, and more.

The case was brought by the Texas Department of Agriculture which oversees weights and measures in the state.

The company vows to appeal the verdict. "We believe the jury disregarded tolerances, long recognized by law, and held us to a standard of perfection that neither we nor anyone in the retail fuel industry can attain," said Stuart Lapp, general counsel for Petroleum Wholesale. However, a jury may well agree that a total of 985 pumps with improper calibration is hardly a reach for perfection. State officials examined a total of 1,700 pumps when checking claims against Petroleum Wholesale, reported the Chronicle. These numbers may still be misleading. State authorities claim that defendants sent workers to quickly re-calibrate pumps before the inspectors could reach them.

During the trial, jurors were given 48 boxes of fuel receipts, covering more than 5,700,000 gallons of gasoline and more than 727,000 fraudulent sales transactions, according to the Chronicle. The jury awarded $19 million in restitution to be paid to customers, levied more than $8 million in civil penalties against Petroleum Wholesale and and awarded nearly $3 million in fees to the state.

At least one Texas bureaucrat cited state pride after the verdict. "In Texas, we demand that we get what we pay for," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples told ConsumerAffairs.com "One Texan cheated is one too many."

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