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NC judge shuts down tree-removal company accused of price gouging after Hurricane Florence

NC National Guard helps clean up after Hurricane Florence

Members of the NC National Guard out of Raeford helping residents of Whiteville remove fallen trees after Hurricane Florence on Sept. 20, 2018.
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Members of the NC National Guard out of Raeford helping residents of Whiteville remove fallen trees after Hurricane Florence on Sept. 20, 2018.

A Superior Court judge temporarily shut down a tree service that quoted a Wilmington woman a $4,000 price for cleanup following Hurricane Florence but charged a $12,000 bill.

The state Attorney General’s office sought and received a preliminary injunction Monday against A1 Tree & Storm Relief from Lexington, also known as Big A1, arguing that the business engaged in price-gouging with customers made vulnerable by the devastating storm.

Judge Bryan Collins ruled that Alva Wilson Lewis and his crew cannot remove trees or clear storm damage until the state’s lawsuit against them is settled, effectively putting them out of business for now.

“The governor had declared a state of emergency,” Collins told Lewis after his ruling. “That sort of changes the way you have to deal with people.”

The storm knocked down trees throughout Wilmington, especially large oaks and magnolias in the city’s older neighborhoods. In the early days after Florence made landfall, the city struggled without power as crews worked to clear limbs from roads and electrical lines.

In its complaint, the attorney general’s office said one of Lewis’ workers approached Anne Smith in her front yard and asked if she wanted trees cleared. She pointed out three for removal and got a quote for $4,000, the suit said.

The price doubled after the worker inspected further, then dropped to $7,000. When Smith paused, the suit said, the worker identified as “Jeff” assured her insurance would reimburse her costs — a promise the state described as untrue.

“It’s a classic technique to soften the homeowner’s response to the bill,” Assistant Attorney General Kip Sturgis said in court Monday.

Work on Smith’s property took about 10 workers and 3.5 hours, the suit said, and consisted of three trees and a bushy area.

“Smith was taken aback” by the $12,000 bill, the suit said. “Jeff replied that his crew had done a lot of work and some of it was dangerous.”

Smith was asked to pay the bill in two $6,000 checks to make bank deposit easier, she said. She made them out to Alva Lewis, but later stopped payment on one of them because she considered it excessive.

In its suit, the state said Big A1 & Sons was ranked among the “dirty dozen” worst businesses in North Carolina, receiving numerous complaints. The attorney general’s office also said Lewis has a pattern of targeting areas hit by severe storms, including Florida and Georgia.

In court Monday, Sturgis cited an estimate from a certified arborist that put the value of the work between $3,900 and $6,400.

But Lewis objected to this characterization. “I ain’t gouged nobody,” he said when the judge called his name.

He took the witness stand and said he did the work for Smith at the request of another tree service from Thomasville and did not deal with the customer personally.

Lewis testified that he only received one $6,000 check, and that no one told Smith that insurance would cover the cost. He disputed the expert’s estimate and said the job involved taking out a “huge magnolia.”

“It was this big,” he said, spreading his arms apart, adding, “It ain’t no $1,000 magnolia.”

He frequently shook his head at the state’s testimony, insisting, “This is how I feed my family.”

In its suit, the state is seeking repayment for Smith and $5,000 in penalties for each instance of price-gouging the court finds.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08

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