Guilt by Association'?

One Sunmart owner mulls suit against Petroleum Wholesale; class action filed

Greg Lindenberg, Editor, CSP

AUSTIN, Texas -- The owner of an Austin, Texas, gas station cited by the state for cheating customers out of fuel has spoken out about the accusation, reported CBS 42-TV. And Two Texas City, Texas, residents have filed a lawsuit against the parent company of a La Marque gas station accused of cheating consumers at the pump, said The Daily News.
Mubarak Maknojia told CBS-42 that he should not be considered guilty by association. Though he owns the grocery mart and the land the gasoline pumps sit on, Maknojia said he is not in control of how the pumps are calibrated. He said he is just as angry [image-nocss] as everyone else that they weren't giving out as much fuel as they were supposed to.Eleven of the 12 gas nozzles at his Sunmart were shut down after the state found they did not dispense as much fuel customers were paying for, the report said. The pumps are operated by The Woodlands, Texas-based company Petroleum Wholesale LP, which operates 86 Sunmart Travel Centers & Convenience Stores in 10 states.

Last week, Texas Department of Agriculture commissioner Todd Staples announced the results of "Operation Spotlight," a major investigation into Petroleum Wholesale's Sunmart stations. According to Staples, findings of the probe confirmed that numerous Sunmart stations cheated Texas consumers by giving them less fuel than they purchased, and he said that they strongly indicate this could have been a deliberate act by the company.

The investigation claimed that 990 of Sunmart's 1,704 fuel pumps cheated consumers (58%), 47 Sunmart stations cheated customers on more than half of their pumps and 15 of those 47 stations had every single pump cheating drivers.The Agriculture Department shut down all of the noncompliant pumps. (Click here for CSP Daily News coverage.)

Texas Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association president Chris Newton, commenting on Operation Spotlight in general, told CSP Daily News: "Last year, TPCA publicly supported the Texas Department of Agriculture's decision to increase administrative penalties for weights and measures violations. Our organization's support of the department's proposal was based on the importance our members place on a fair and competitive market. As the Texas Department of Agriculture has acknowledged, the types of violations alleged as a result of 'Operation Sunlight' constitute a small minority of the dispensers currently in service at retail locations. An overwhelming majority of operators ensure their dispensers are properly calibrated as a matter of good business practice. 'Operation Sunlight' and the resulting media coverage have led operators to redouble their efforts to ensure their dispensers are calibrated correctly."

Rick Johnson, president of the Texas Grocery & Convenience Association,would not comment for CSP Daily News on Operation Spotlight other than to say that Sunmarts were members and that other members have not been affected.

Maknojia said he feels terrible about his station shortchanging motorists and wants his customers to know he would never try to cheat them. "My business is based on my customer service," he told the news outlet. "I have been here for the last 16 years. Every customer knows me, and I would give them the best service possible."

He added that he is so angry with Petroleum Wholesale that he has hired legal counsel to deal with them and wants the company held responsible for cheating customers. Scott Deshazo is Maknojia's attorney. "I want PWI out of the picture," Deshazo told CBS 42. "Petroleum Wholesale is responsible for maintaining these pumps. But when customers come here and can't get gas, or they are gypped on their gas, they go straight into Mr. Maknojia and complain to him."

Deshazo added that he has tried contacting Petroleum Wholesale several times but has not heard back from the company. Efforts by CSP Daily News were also unsuccessful by presstime.

"My business is suffering because of not having gas pumps on," Maknojia said. "I am losing money, and my customers also not getting service."Meanwhile, John Marroney and Adrian Oatis filed a class-action lawsuit in County Court No. 1 in Galveston against Petroleum Wholesale on behalf of people who purchased gasoline from the company. "This is a case where people kill you with a thousand barbs," their attorney, Tony Buzbee, told the Daily News. "They're small cheats that add up to a big number."

According to the lawsuit, Marroney on July 11 purchased fuel at the Sunmart station. And Oatis bought gasoline at least two times a week for more than a year at the store.

While individuals might not be out a lot, Texan consumers could be out thousands of dollars because of inaccurate pumps, Buzbee said. "Individually, these cases would not be worth the time, money or effort," he added. "But collectively, it makes sense because there's no other remedy for these people to get their money back."