Toll booth operators have pretty boring jobs, but they might get a jolt out of this federal court decision.
In St. Pierre v. Retrieval-Masters Creditors Bureau, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said that unpaid tolls are not debts under federal debt collections law. If that sounds complicated, it comes down to this:
If drivers don't pay their tolls, debt collectors can chase them down with a vengeance.
It's a case of first impression -- in all the circuits. The Third Circuit considered the question whether tolls are "debts" under protections of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The answer was "no."
Thomas St. Pierre was hoping for a different answer after he ran up a bill for $1,200.75. "How did that happen?" could have been the court's first question.
He didn't have enough money in his automatic debit account as he cruised the toll roads, that's how. But the collection service also messed up, St. Pierre said in his lawsuit.
In the proposed class action, he alleged Retrieval Masters Credit Bureau violated the FDCPA by sending him notices in envelopes that didn't comply with the federal law. The trial judge threw it out, and the appeals court affirmed.
A Highway Tax
Among other things, the Third Circuit explained, tolls are basically a highway tax. And where "the proverbial rubber meets the road," the appeals court said, is that they don't meet the statutory definition of a debt.
"St. Pierre's toll liability thus does not constitute 'an obligation ... primarily for personal, family, or household purposes,' and does not qualify as 'debt' under the FDCPA," the panel said.