SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- With the start of the new year: a new toll system is coming to Bay Area bridges. Toll takers who were removed in the pandemic are gone for good. All Bay Area bridge tolls are now all-electronic, and penalties will apply for non-payment of invoices.
It's the same system used on the Golden Gate Bridge since 2013. It means motorists without a Fastrak account of some sort will get an invoice in the mail. But at its inception, thousands of motorists claimed they were charged penalties before the got their invoices.
That led to a class-action lawsuit against FasTrak filed in 2014, claiming thouse thousands of motorists were due a refund on penalties they didn't deserve.
Now, after six long years and a bitter court fight, a surprising ruling by the court.
The outcome belied the drama that took place during six years of litigation. Laywers for FasTrak operators, and the Bay Area Toll Authority accused class action attorneys of fraud. They tried to keep the public from attending the trial and to keep a public policy secret on how they enforced toll violations. So, after six years of litigation, did the court award sweeping compensation for blindsided motorists?
Actually, the court awarded one dollar to two people.
The lawsuit began after the Golden Gate Bridge switched to all-electronic tolling in 2013.
Motorists without a FasTrak account were supposed to get a toll invoice in the mail. But the suit claimed thousands never received their invoices, mostly due to address mistakes. Rather than finding a correct address, the suit says FasTrak kept piling on penalties.
"They just shredded the return mail (bridge-toll invoices) and imposed penalties on these motorists for failing to pay the toll," class-action attorney Adam Gutride said..
"I never got a single notice," said plaintiff Michael Saliani,of San Rafael. He said he racked up more than $9000 in penalties before he saw a single invoice. Fastrak said he should have known to look for them and inquire, since he'd crossed multiple times without paying.
FasTrak said it changed its policies over the years of the lawsuit, to prevent unwitting violators from incurring multiple penalties. But it wanted to keep those policies a secret, saying motorists could use the information to "game the systemn" and avoid paying tolls.
The Bay Area Toll Authority, hoping to keep that policy under wraps during the trial, tried to bar the public from the courtroom. The effort failed after 7 On Your Side objected.
"It's troubling that the tolling agencies have this view of California motorists," Gutride said. "They believe the public is out to cheat. Out to get them.".
The lawsuit asked for refunds for motorists who never received their bridge toll invoices before FasTrak piled on penalties.
But in an 81-page ruling, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo found little evidence to show motorists were denied due process rights.
The court did rule in favor of a Mill Valley couple named in the suit.
In their case, the bridge toll invoice was mailed with no street address. So they never got it, and they racked up $2,500 in penalties.
The court ordered FasTrak to provide them a hearing.
And she awarded them a nominal one dollar.
Now that all bridges use electronic tolling, FasTrak will have to send invoices to millions more motorists.
Already it's caused a problem for Khara in Mountain View.
She writes that she never received an invoice for a one-dollar toll road crossing, and FasTrak charged her a $25 penalty.
She spent hours arguing with FasTrak before it waived the fee.
Class action attorney Adam Gutride believes the trial did force FasTrak to treat the public more fairly. "That's a good thing for motorists in California," he said. "They can't pile on penalties if the mail is returned and they will waive up to 75 penalties if you call to complain."
And what about that policy that FasTrak tried to keep secret? FasTrak has stopped tacking on penalties if the post office can't deliver an invoice. If you get a FasTrak violation under the new system, let 7 On Your Side know.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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