A Lake George-based tree removal and grounds company allegedly gouged desperate New Yorkers in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene at a rate Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called “breathtaking.”
Schneiderman on Thursday announced his recently filed lawsuit against the family-owned American Tree Company.
“American Tree engaged in a breathtaking scheme to price-gouge innocent New Yorkers out of thousands of dollars,” he said in a statement. “The tactics used, and the excessive amounts charged, by this company during a time of crisis in the community shocks the conscience. Whether it is Tropical Storm Irene or Hurricane Sandy, our office has zero tolerance for price gouging and we are fully committed to enforcing the law.”
Members of the family that owns the company, Daniel, John and Merwin “Skip” Stranahan, allegedly stopped by people’s houses starting Aug. 28, before the storm had totally blown over, asking if residents wanted fallen or dangerous trees removed.
“They would give people oral estimates,” said Michelle Hook, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, “throw out some numbers of what things usually cost. Then people would get a bill in the mail for some ridiculous amount.”
According to the suit, while American Tree Company never charged more than $4,000 for a job immediately before the storm, some homeowners were charged $10,000 per tree immediately after. At least 10 customers received bills from $11,000 to nearly $50,000, the totals boosted by undisclosed after-hours and emergency fees.
Faced with such large bills, many clients called the Attorney General’s office hotline. Hook said between 16 and 24 people in the Capital Region said American Tree Company had gouged them, “which raised some red flags.”
While Merwin “Skip” Stranahan is implicated in the suit, he denied any ownership of the company, saying Daniel and John, his sons, now own it. Even so, he said, Schneiderman’s claims are fabricated and a blatant defamation of character.
“American Tree Company has maintained an A-plus rating with the Better Business Bureau for 30 years,” he said. “They provide a level of service second to none with thousands of happy customers.”
He said in his many years at the company he and his sons have served 14,000 people in three states with very few complaints, all resolved.
He did not comment on tree-removal prices immediately following Irene, but said he and his sons never took part in any underhanded business.
“There are several factors which determine the cost of a job,” he said.
Hook explained that for a price-gouging allegation to stick, a company must have raised prices for no actual reason during an “abnormal market disruption” such as those caused by Tropical Storm Irene.
She mentioned a downstate gas station the attorney general had at first thought was price gouging after Hurricane Sandy. It turned out the station had to raise prices to pay extra security guards hired during post-storm chaos.
“But in our investigation, American Tree Company didn’t have such a reason,” she said.
Consumers who used American Tree’s services in connection with Tropical Storm Irene and think they may have been the victim of price gouging are urged to contact the attorney general’s office at 1-800-771-7755 or www.ag.ny.gov.