Man Threatens To Sue Extortionist HVAC Company In Small Claims, Wins

Last winter, David’s old furnace broke down. But things got really heated up when the incompetent HVAC repairmen he hired threatened to report him to collection agencies and put a lien on his condo when they wanted him to pay up for a repair they never finished. Just to give a little atmosphere, this takes place in Chicago, famed for its merciless winters. David’s story, and how fought back, inside…

Brrr! I called a leading HVAC company to come fix it, not wanting to risk fixing it myself (gas leaks scare me). The repairman spent 3 hours trying 6 different circuit boards, and finally said he must have gotten a fully defective batch, he’d have to come back the next day with parts from the warehouse. He then spent 30 minutes trying to force me to pay him for his time, despite not having actually repaired my furnace. I told him he’d better leave or I’d call the police. He left.

I broke out my trusty old multimeter and started testing things by reading the handy-dandy electrical schematic glued to the inside of the access panel. Within 15 minutes I found it was a “heat trip sensor” – basically a “fuse” that trips when it detects heat in the wrong place. This one was “downwind” of the chimney flue, where hot natural gas fumes normally rise upwards. A visit to the roof determined a chimney lining tile had fallen over and blocked the chimney.

Thus, the hot exhaust blew back down the furnace, and the furnace’s safety system kicked into gear. Banging on the tile in the chimney with a broomstick made it break and fall to the bottom of the chimney. A trip to an HVAC supplier resulted in a $4 replacement heat sensor. I installed the part, and just like that! My furnace started working just fine.

The next day, the HVAC company threatened to report me to collection agencies, sue me, and even threatened to put a lien on my condo. A few weeks later, I filed a small claims court complaint contending that I never agreed to pay a dime unless the repair was completed, and to boot, they were incompetent. Rather than appear before a judge, they settled by reimbursing me the filing fees and drop the collection attempt

How did I know to do things with the small claims court?… Consumerist. THANKS!

Going to small claims court is a lot easier than you might think. You don’t need a lawyer and filing fees are minimal. Here’s how to take a case to small claims court, stories and advice from a guy who makes frequent use of small claims court, and a success story from a reader who won after suing a subcontractor in small claims.

(Photo: beau-foto)

Comments

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  1. ScubaSteveKzoo says:

    Good to see somebody to succeed against a company clearly trying to take advantage of their customers. They know that most of the time, people will pony up the dough for their “time,” but they also know that they should not be charging people for uncompleted work. Way to go.

  2. BoomerFive says:

    @ScubaSteveKzoo: Exactly. Kudos to you sir! If everyone refused to let companies like this take advantage of them we would all be better off. Great job!

  3. boomerang86 says:

    Gas furnaces are surprisingly simple devices. I bought my own hot spare surface ignitor and plan to replace that myself when it finally gives out… some of my neighbors had to cough up $500 to have this fixed by the “big bad wolf” HVAC shop in the middle of the night!

    A couple years back something similar to David’s breakdown happened to my NG hot water heater; a downdraft heat sensor tripped, which I found easily with an ohmmeter. I got a resettable unit and it’s been fine ever since!

  4. donkeyjote says:

    Technically, he didn’t win. He settled. A win would mean a court decision in his favor.

  5. mythago says:

    I guess that depends on how you define “win”.

  6. P41 says:

    I dunno, surprisingly few stories here talk about about going to small claims court. I read a lot more about executive email carpet bombs…which rely on the company not wanting a PR loss. A judgment in small claims court is a very real monetary loss for a company, and often not even worth the cost of sending a [paid] representative. And the fact that you’ve actually filed shows you’re serious, compared with just blowing smoke about suing, which usually gets nowhere.

    But you can’t file claims by email hence the preference for EECBs.

  7. humphrmi says:

    @donkeyjote: That’s really just a matter of semantics. He wasn’t actually out of pocket (except the court filing costs) anyway – it’s questionable whether this case would have ended in him getting anything additional back. On the other hand, once a business is sued and a judgement is filed, that stays on public record for some time, and can hurt a business’ credit rating. So the business “settled” in order to avoid a judgement. The OP got everything he was entitled to … he didn’t actually have to “settle” for anything less than he wanted / deserved.

  8. Cupajo says:

    @donkeyjote: Looks like a win to me. He got what he wanted. HVAC company did not get what they wanted. A “legal victory”? No. But a victory nonetheless.

  9. azntg says:

    Now, check your credit report and make sure that collections isn’t there either!

  10. Scuba Steve says:

    I’ve got to start a club for scuba steve’s or something.

  11. tylerk4 says:

    Hope he has that agreement in writing. :)

  12. SacraBos says:

    He played the game, and he won. Good for you. I replaced a worn-out thermocouple on my furnace when my pilot light wouldn’t stay lit.

    @azntg: Good idea…

  13. womynist says:

    Sometimes threatening someone with small claims court is enough. My boyfriend accidentally damaged my car, promised to pay for it/fix it himself, then conveniently “forgot” after we broke up. He avoided my phone calls and finally I sent him a letter that said I intended to pursue the matter in small claims court. Well don’t you know he responded to that with a quickness! He said he “never received” any of my messages. Right. At least he ponied up in the end.

  14. gorckat says:

    I completely agree he shouldn’t have to pay for the whole time the guy was there (the tech’s incompetence is not cause to bill more- that’s something the company has to eat), but by the tech doing his thing, he did determine there was no gas leak.

    Which enabled him to repair the furnace himself.

    Seems the company was at least due w/e service call fee they charge to show up.

  15. tedyc03 says:

    He got a little lucky…most states only allow small claims courts to rule on matters dealing directly with money, rather than ruling about you NOT owing. For example, if he had paid and then they didn’t complete the repair he’d have grounds…but if he’s asking for something OTHER than a judgement in the amount of money owed HIM, they’d have probably thrown it out. No declaratory judgements in Small Claims.

    Still, the outcome was favorable. Kudos to the OP for his bright thinking and willingness to stand on principle.

  16. Jackasimov says:

    name names.

    I think I’m currently using this HVAC company.

  17. socritic says:

    Please share the name of this company so we make sure NEVER TO CALL THEM.

  18. Nighthawke says:

    The AC serviceman needed a Smart Bat applied to his head. He did not perform a full diagnostic which includes blocked ducts or vent piping.

  19. vladthepaler says:

    This seems to be a consistent problem on the Consumerist: why don’t you specify the company involved here, so that informed consumers can avoid that business?

    I suggest that you implement a policy requiring all reader stories to specify the name and location of the business they are writing about, and that you always include that information in a prominent location within the article you post.

  20. AdvocatesDevil says:

    Yes, posts like this without the company name is kind of useless!

  21. AdvocatesDevil says:

    @vladthepaler: Quoted for truth!

  22. uncle_fluffy says:

    @donkeyjote:

    If a lawsuit is filed and is concluded with one party paying money to the other, either pursuant to a judgment or settlement agreement, I think it’s fair to call it a win.

  23. usmcmoran says:

    i used to work in the chimney relining business and he needs to get a stainless steel liner in that thing or he could be breathing in some fumes. good for him on throwing the guy out

  24. JiminyChristmas says:

    @usmcmoran: I was thinking along similar lines. Now that his chimney liner is obviously broken, where are those hot gases going? I hope it’s nowhere near something combustible.

  25. PølάrβǽЯ says:

    Hooray for this guy’s success! I sued someone in small claims once. Cost me $25 to file, and I got my $6xx.xx + the $25 back cause I won!

  26. @JiminyChristmas: @usmcmoran: I was thinking the same thing, except that I was thinking that since this guy is in a condo, he could be sending CO into one of his neighbor’s units.

  27. chartrule says:

    i have to agree with some of the others – the company name / location should be posted so people know who to stay clear of

  28. donkeyjote says:

    Jesus people, that’s why I started with the qualifier “Technically”….

    On the other hand, once a business is sued and a judgement is filed, [the judgement] stays on public record for some time, and can hurt a business’ credit rating.

    Emphasis, mine.

  29. numindast says:

    @gorckat: Actually I knew I had no gas leak, but at the time I wasn’t comfortable working on gas appliances.

    As for a service call fee, I’d have been fine paying that … but he was asking for payment based on 3+ hours. He hadn’t mentioned the fee schedule. I should have asked, though.

    @boomerang86: Simple appliances, yes — especially this one, it was a 15 year old Carrier. (I’ve since bought a brand new unit.)

    @usmcmoran: @JiminyChristmas: You are both correct, we do need a new liner. There are two units below me that share the same chimney. I check it yearly now to see if any more tiles collapsed, but regardless, my condo association needs to get off their butts and authorize the work already. As I understand it, natural gas exhaust is acidic and will eat away at our ~100 year old chimney.

    To all involved, this was years ago and the owner and I agreed to keep his company name out of it in return for dropping their threats of collection & liens. I had his corporate lawyer draw it up, and my lawyer neighbor approved, so we called it done. I wasn’t looking for payback. After all, HE is the one who had to deal with his idiot moron tech who brought this PITA on him…

  30. ldnyc says:

    I’ve taken companies to small claims court before – and won. The problem is collecting the judgement. There seems to be no easy way in NYC to collect on a small ($500 ish) judgement without spending almost that much in the process.

  31. kerry says:

    I’ve gotta know, which company was it? Heatmasters? They do our HVAC stuff and I don’t trust them at all. Are there any reliably, honest HVAC companies in Chicago?

  32. god_forbids says:

    I had this happen to me with an electrician one time. He would not leave, and his boss on the phone was more interested in cussing me out than getting money, so I wrote him a check and promptly canceled the check with my bank.

    The owner flipped out and left an angry, cursing voicemail on my phone. This I recorded, and sent on CD (along with a completed incident report) to my state’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs’ Consumer Protection Office – Regulated Industries Complaints Office.

    Facing a censure from their licensing agency, the company backed down. Also something to think about.