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September|October 2005
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Evil Twins By John Wolfson
Elder Counsel By Louisa Lombard
U-Hell By Nicholas Hengen
Torture, Inc. By Tara McKelvey
Was the Plant a Plant? By Demian Bulwa
Cases & Controversies

U-Hell

Reserving a truck can be a devilish business.

By Nicholas Hengen

AFTER YEARS OF TRAFFIC AND SMOG, Kim Walbaum and Winston Purkiss wanted out of Southern California. In the early summer of 2002, Purkiss inherited a small house near one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite fishing spots in the Big Wood River Valley of southern Idaho. In July, the couple visited, and by the time they returned to their duplex north of San Diego, they were planning their escape.

They considered hiring a moving company, but the estimated $5,000 cost for the 1,000-mile trip was higher than they could afford. So they decided to move themselves by renting a truck and trailer from U-Haul—a company that, in the words of its spokeswoman, helps over 10 million movers each year "take themselves to a better place in life." With more dealerships than there are McDonald's restaurants in the United States, U-Haul has movers covered. Need a truck? U-Haul has 92,000. Need boxes? U-Haul sells 18 different kinds. Need a dolly to move your couch? U-Haul rents scores every day. In 2004, the company earned over $1.5 billion through the business of—as bold letters on its trucks proclaim—"Making Moving Easier."

In August 2002, Walbaum logged on to U-Haul's website to reserve a 26-foot truck and a 12-foot trailer. She clicked to a reservation form and filled in the blanks. Moving from: Carlsbad, Calif. Moving to: Picabo, Idaho. Pickup date: September 26. She entered her credit card information and paid a $5 fee to "confirm" the reservation. Walbaum and Purkiss assumed that they were as good as on their way.

What they didn't realize, though, was that their understanding of confirming a reservation differed from U-Haul's. Unlike a restaurant or an airline, the company accepts as many reservations as possible. It bases agents' bonuses in part on the number of reservations they confirm, and it tells dealers to take reservations without knowing whether they will have equipment available. The result can be too many requests for too few trucks and trailers at a given location.

U-Haul's traffic departments in 100 or so locations are responsible for trying to match reservations with equipment. Walbaum's information was sent to the department that covers the San Diego area. In theory, when September rolled around, traffic would route a truck and trailer to Walbaum's local dealer, where she would pick them up. Even though the company "will basically do anything to make sure you schedule the truck," said one former employee, "they don't want to admit that it might not come."

The morning of the move was bright, and the temperature hovered in the high 60s. Purkiss woke early and carried boxes to the driveway. Before rallying the moving crew—her parents, sister, and two friends—Walbaum called the local U-Haul dealer to make sure the truck and trailer would be ready. She had also called three days earlier—"I never trust things over the Internet," she said—and the dealer had assured her that everything was on schedule. This time, she got a different answer: The kind of truck and trailer she had reserved were not available.

When trucks don't show up in the right place at the right time, "it's because of a mechanical breakdown or a vehicle was stolen or inclement weather," said James R. Evans, a U-Haul lawyer. "It's not a product of misconduct on U-Haul's part." Still, no one could tell Walbaum what had happened to her truck and trailer, and her predicament is not unheard of. Between 1998 and 2004, more than 1,000 U-Haul customers complained to the Better Business Bureau, a national consumer protection group, about not getting trucks on schedule. The company claims not to know how many reservations it is accused of failing to honor, but it admits to having received complaints of all sorts from about 100,000 customers last year.

U-Haul does have contingency plans for reservations gone awry. Dealers sometimes substitute a bigger truck or a combination of truck and trailer. Customers can also fetch trucks from another dealer, though one reservations manager says it's not uncommon for customers to have to travel more than 100 miles for a substitute truck. Like Walbaum, customers can also choose to wait.

In her case, the dealer "kept backing the [pick-up] time to later in the day," she said. First, it was noon. Then Walbaum was told the truck would be ready by 2 p.m. "I asked [the manager] to please stay in touch with me," Walbaum said, "and she never called me back the entire day. They said, 'Oh, she's at lunch.' For four hours!"

BY LATE AFTERNOON, BOXES AND FURNITURE FILLED THE LAWN and driveway. As the sun started to sink, Walbaum and Purkiss gave up and began to move everything back inside. Just before 7 p.m.—when U-Haul closed for the night—the phone rang. The dealer had a truck. But when Walbaum and Purkiss arrived to pick it up, they found that the gearshift would not stay in park. At first, the manager suggested that they return the next day for a different truck, but Walbaum wanted the problem fixed immediately. When a clerk declared it fixed, the couple took the truck and raced home.

Late the next afternoon, Walbaum and Purkiss got on the road. Exhausted from a lack of sleep, they set out across the desert and, at 4 a.m., reached Ely, Nev. But the transmission problem had resurfaced, and the couple had to place two-by-fours under the wheels to keep the truck from rolling across the motel parking lot.

The next evening, after eight more hours on the road, Walbaum and Purkiss pulled into the driveway of their new house in Idaho. "I started to cry," said Walbaum. "Not sobs or anything. I just got so teary-eyed. I was so worried the entire trip—it had just been such a horrible experience." Purkiss fell asleep on a mattress on the floor. He had missed a day of work at his new job as a physical therapist, and he wanted to be there early the next morning.

IN MAY 1997, MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERAL SCOTT HARSHBARGER sued U-Haul, arguing that the company routinely failed to honor its reservations. "Consumers have a right to expect that when they make a reservation for a moving truck that is supposedly 'guaranteed,' it will be there as promised," Harshbarger told the Boston Globe. A similar suit filed two years later by the Kansas attorney general accused the company of "exaggeration, falsehood, innuendo and ambiguity" in its reservations practices. The company quickly settled both suits, without admitting liability but agreeing to put $155,000 into the Massachusetts Local Consumer Aid Fund and to pay Kansas a $10,000 fine.

Not long after settling the lawsuits, U-Haul changed its reservations policies, though not necessarily for the customer's benefit. The company's ads and website began to describe reservations as "confirmed" rather than "guaranteed." But reservations made through the U-Haul website or toll-free phone number began to carry the $5 fee that Walbaum paid.

The month before Walbaum made her reservation with U-Haul, attorney Thomas A. Cohen filed a class action lawsuit against the company in California Superior Court. The suit alleges that U-Haul has "cheated" customers through "false advertising" and, like the suits in Kansas and Massachusetts, contends that U-Haul's reservations system is deceptive. The company needs "to be really specific to people," said Cohen, "and in plain language make them understand that a reservation is not a guarantee." But unlike the suits filed by Kansas and Massachusetts, U-Haul has fought Cohen's suit vigorously, insisting that "U-Haul does the best job that it can to disclose to the customer" that reservations aren't guaranteed for a specific place or time, said Evans. "There's always a potential for human error," he said. "As a matter of custom and practice, the errors are small in number."

In early 2004, Walbaum's sister in California heard about the class action and put Walbaum in touch with Cohen. He told stories of other victims of the company's reservations system. One woman had been made to wait in line six hours or risk losing the truck she had reserved. A man had canceled his reservation when his U-Haul trailer didn't show up—and was charged a $50 cancellation fee. Walbaum decided to share her experience with Cohen. "I'm not a complainer," she said. "I've never been in a lawsuit before. I just don't want anybody else to spend a day like I did: in tears."

The suit demands that the company refund the $5 fee to each of the Californians who, like Walbaum, have paid to reserve U-Haul trucks or trailers. With more than seven million customers potentially in the class, the company could be liable for tens of millions of dollars.

In May, before the Memorial Day moving rush, several customers with U-Haul reservations arrived at a California dealer to pick up trucks. "I had no idea what they were talking about and I didn't have any trucks," the manager said. "I gave them the 800 number and sent them on their way."

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