Lawsuit targets toll collection practices on Grand Island

James Neiss/staff photographerThis file photo from March 2018 shows traffic passing under the electronic toll collection system south of the North Grand Island bridges. 

Fines charged to drivers who do not pay tolls to cross Grand Island in a timely manner violate residents' constitutional rights, according to allegations in a lawsuit filed earlier this week.

The suit, filed by Western New York attorney Timothy Hiller on Thursday, claims the penalties levied by the state Thruway Authority infringe on the eighth amendment rights of his clients Carl Kettle, Larry Biesuz, Jr. and David Tredo, in addition to other state residents.

The amendment protects U.S. citizens from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive fines.

According to Hiller, not only are the minor $5 late fees the authority administers unexplained, there is no dispute process to contest the $50 fines for tolls that are deemed delinquent. The existing system constitutes a "bureaucratic nightmare," he said in a prepared statement.

“The situation at the Grand Island Bridge is an outrage,” Hiller said. “People are still adapting to the fact that the tolls have gone cashless, and the state is charging mind-boggling fines. Nobody should have their lives impacted so severely over a $1 toll.”

In the lawsuit, Hiller said his clients either paid monthly invoices sent from the law firm tasked with collecting the tolls, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, or did not receive the notices, but were hit with the substantial fines nonetheless. The firm is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. 

In one case, Biesuz, Jr., received a bill for more than $2,000 in fines for a vehicle that had an E-Z Pass inside of it, the wireless device that allows users to prepay and automate their toll payments and one the authority calls the preferred method of payment. 

When Biesuz, Jr. called the authority to dispute it, he was told to call the law firm to discuss the penalties. When he called the law firm, he was told the authority possessed the relevant records, according to the suit. Without records to justify the charges, Biesuz, Jr., was told his account was placed in "dispute status." 

Another bill arrived after the conversation, restating his $2,296.50 fine for $68.20 in unpaid tolls.

“It’s not just the huge fees that are being imposed, but it’s the process. It’s truly a bureaucratic nightmare. Notices (haven't) been received," Hiller said. "Even when people do get notice, they aren’t being provided with any opportunity to challenge the fines through legal process. Instead, they call into EZ-Pass or the Thruway Authority and they aren’t getting clear answers."

In a statement, Jennifer Given, director of media relations and communications for the Thruway Authority, said the organization had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

Given said drivers have approximately three months to pay their toll bills before the violation fees are imposed and that each bill "contains instructions for customers to pay their toll bills online, over the phone, or by mail."

"We urge customers who have questions or traveled through a cashless facility and claim they have not received a bill to contact us immediately. Motorists are required under state law to update their addresses with DMV to ensure toll bills are mailed to the proper location," she said in an emailed statement.

"Over the last year, cashless tolling has saved Western New Yorkers time, has reduced congestion at the Grand Island Bridges, and cut emissions to the local area. We continue to urge costumers to sign up for E-Z Pass – which remains the easiest and most affordable way to pay tolls," the statement continued. 

The state legislature passed the Toll Payer Protection Act late last year, but the item was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The Senate bill described the purpose of the act as creating a "Bill of Rights" for toll payers in the state. 

The plaintiffs want a judge to assess compensatory and punitive damages to the authority and the law firm, among other terms of relief.  

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