A court settlement after years of allegations that gas stations in northwestern Vermont were overcharging consumers means cash payments could soon be flowing to eligible consumers.
“It was a surprise to us,” said Charlie Herrick, whose South Burlington business, Vermont Ride Network, was notified this week that it may be eligible for payment under the settlement terms.
The notifications, which have been arriving to Vermont homes this week, stem from a court agreement back in October, when four fuel wholesalers serving northwestern Vermont settled a class-action lawsuit for $1.5-million.
That suit, filed in 2015, claimed the distributors conspired to set higher prices, forcing drivers to pay more for gas than they should have. The allegation was the plan boosted the distributors’ profits.
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However, the defendants, R.L. Vallee, S.B. Collins, Wesco, Inc. and Champlain Oil Company, are adamant they did nothing wrong and have consistently argued that no price fixing ever happened
When the settlement was announced, R.L. Vallee insisted it and the other fuel distributors were wrongly sued, blasting the proceedings as “outrageous.”
While the settlement admits no guilt, it does end years of legal wrangling, which the defendants last year described as costly and a distraction to their operations.
“Being as we are a volume purchaser of petroleum, it’s something we’re doing an audit on — and seeing what the outlay was, what our expenses are,” Herrick said of the work Vermont Ride Network is now doing to respond to the claim notification.
Vermont Ride Network provides transportation and courier services for businesses, schools, the government, hospitals and more. Herrick, who formerly operated the taxi business Green Cab, said he received a stack of letters telling him he could have money coming his way because of where he fueled his fleet.
According to the settlement documents, people who lived in Chittenden, Franklin or Grand Isle Counties between April 1, 2012, and June 22, 2015, who bought gas from one of nearly 150 stations owned or supplied by the defendants, can fill out a form to get a portion of that $1.5 million.
Lawyers will take their cut, too, in an amount the settlement documents say is not to exceed one-third of the settlement fund, or $500,000.
Driver Joe Couture, whom NECN met in Colchester Wednesday, filled out the claim form he received and said he was glad to see the distributors called out.
“My wife and I talked and we don’t think we’ll get more than $25, if we’re lucky,” Couture said. “But it’s the idea they’ve been gouging us for years and it’s not right.”
Potential recipients can either claim a standard amount of gas purchases or dig up receipts, as Charlie Herrick said he will do.
Any claims, opt-outs or objections need to be postmarked by March 26 and a final court approval is set for May 11 in Burlington, according to the paperwork.
Driver Steph Pappas said she is skeptical that the settlement will change anything affecting the price she pays for gas.
“I don’t want a settlement, I just want the problem fixed,” Pappas said.
Attorney Josh Simonds, one of the attorneys appointed to represent potential settlement recipients, pointed consumers to the website VTFuelClassAction.com, saying it answers a lot of questions.
A call NECN placed to fuel distributor R.L. Vallee seeking comment was not returned by our news deadline Wednesday. This story will be updated if we hear back.