Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lesson: Fight Your Excessive Water Bill!

In October 2010, we received a water bill from the Region of Peel that was almost 10 times as high as normal. Peel claimed that we had used 2.5 years worth of water at some point during a three-month period. Nothing was wrong at the house and our habits had not changed. We strongly disputed the bill; Peel said "pay or we'll turn off your water".

After making numerous calls to see if there was any sort of venue outside of court to arbitrate the matter (there was not), we paid the bill and took Peel to small claims court to recover what we felt was the excessive charge.

The trial was last Friday and we scored a resounding victory! We received the amount we were seeking ($429, with interest), reimbursement of our court costs ($175), a fee for preparation for trial ($100), and a sum for "inconvenience" ($400). Together, the court awarded us over $1,100! An utter rout! The judge was shocked that Peel had allowed this matter to come to trial and said it should have shut us up with a few hundred dollars months and months ago.

Small claims court in Canada is much different than it is in New York City. This was an actual trial before an attentive judge (in at least one instance in New York, we were effectively denied a chance to fully explain our case). I did not necessarily expect a fair hearing, so I was extremely pessimistic about our chances, assumed the municipality would be given the benefit of any doubts, and would have gladly taken half of the $429 as a settlement rather than proceed to trial.

A huge point in our favour was that the amount in question was so high. If the bill had been double or even triple our normal usage, it likely would not have gone our way. Also, Peel harped on alleged abnormalities with our toilets in their two home inspections. They claimed the high bill could have been caused by the abnormalities. But our bills for the periods in which the visits were made were two of the lower bills we have had in five years at our house. There was also a pattern of exaggeration (aka lying) in its case (a water level in one toilet was "a little high" in the inspector's on-site notes, "high" in a report she later filed at her office, and "very high" in Peel's defence papers). In the end, Peel's argument was that they acted friendly to us and meters never malfunction and cause high readings. ... Oh, and Peel's lawyer (an articling student, actually, arguing what the judge said was "a lousy case") slipped up during her closing statement and admitted that we had proven our case!

Laura said that when the judge first said he was ruling in our favour, two of Peel's witnesses sitting in the back of the room actually gasped! I'm sorry I missed hearing that. (Laura blogged a bit about the day here; earlier posts about the bill are here and here.)

In my research, I found very little information about how often excessive billing mistakes occur and even less about citizens who have taken on their city's or municipality's utility company. I wanted to post this in case anyone is in a similar situation to what we faced and is searching for information. Don't despair - sometimes common sense wins the day!


Trustee said...

I am going through the same thing with the Region of Peel. The previous bill was $14.21 for 86 days and the current bill is $538.74 for 113 days. It is an Estate property, which is vacant but inspected every other day. It is now sold and has closed and this was the Final Bill, adding to the difficulty to prove anything. In all my inspections there was nothing running and no leaks, so I can imagine no circumstance to justify such a bill. The time period was for Dec 8 to Mar 30, so even if a neighbour were running a long hose to their own house from the garage between the times I was there, how much could they really steal? And who would do that? They have been the same neighbours for 40 years! There are now new people in the property and the Region went to inspect the meter indoors, as this final read was done from the outside and the meter seems to be working correctly, according to them. In speaking with the new owners, they apparently remarked that there may have been a leaky toilet - MAY have been? Nevertheless, I did not observe that ever, in all my inspections right up to 2 days before the closing of the sale. AND every toilet in the place is new. Even if it were true, it couldn't possibly account for a bill 28 times the consumption. I am inspired that you won and it gives me some hope. Do you have any advice to expedite a solution? I have been trying to work within the system so far and am getting passed up the line at the Region. I am going to use your case to support mine because I have been getting the "can't fight the truth of the meter" argument so far. I thank you for the post.

allan said...

Do you have any advice to expedite a solution? I have been trying to work within the system so far and am getting passed up the line at the Region.

I don't think you can expedite anything. In our case, we were given these choices every time we called: (a) pay your bill in full, (b) pay the bill in installments, (c) have no water because we will shut it off. That was it. I would not expect the Region to offer any other solutions.

In our case, they feel they have all the power and clearly were not worried about going to small claims court. Even at the trial, they assumed that a defense of "meters never fail" and "we treated the customer nicely" would do the trick. We prepared A LOT and were able to raise doubt that maybe the meter was not broken, but something weird happened and we should not be responsible for such a huge difference.

I do know that with another judge, we might not have been so fortunate. He took the time to listen to us and ask a lot of questions of both sides. I assumed that the Region would have a headstart on us when we went in, but that was not the case with our judge. Sadly, it might be a more uphill battle with someone else.

Keep me posted either in this thread or by email (joyofsox at gmail dot com).

laura k said...

Sadly, it might be a more uphill battle with someone else.

But... you'd have our case to draw on. Not only a recent case in Ontario, but against the same defendant!

I would also contact the Mississauga News and the Toronto Star to get some publicity, tell them about our case as well as yours.

Good luck! Let us know if you need any more info that we can help with.

Unknown said...

I was very glad to see your blog, because we just received bill for the water use for three month for $8,100.00.It's the average of 27,000.00 liters a day. We found this ridicules. We are going to go to small claim court too and hire paralegal, what is your advice.

Sherry Elizabeth said...

I know this is an old thread but just wondering if anyone else could update their outcome? Im going thru this now. Bogus 2000$ usage in 3 months