(DALLAS) — Five people in Texas said a biohazard removal company wildly overbilled them for cleaning up after their loved ones’ deaths, charging tens of thousands of dollars for jobs that were quoted at a fraction of the price.
“They indicate to them the bill will be $3,000 or $4,000 and then it becomes $40,000 or $50,000. That’s what you call bait and switch,” said Ted Lyon, an attorney who is representing five Texas families who say they were unfairly billed by Aftermath, an Illinois-based biohazard removal company.
Laura McGowan, a spokesperson for Aftermath, defended the company’s practices and said a designated family member was constantly updated on additional costs by a supervisor.
“We give them a transparent pricing sheet, and we have it spelled out detail by detail,” she said. “We have to make sure we’re preserving the health and safety of people in that home. We are of the opinion if another company is doing the job for $2,000, then they’re not doing it right.”
After paramedics and police leave the scene of a home suicide or another unexpected passing, a grieving family member is often left with a second trauma — calling in a biohazard recovery team to decontaminate their home and scrub away the visible signs of heartbreak. The crews arrive hours after a death in their protective suits, ready to sop up tissue, cut away blood-stained carpet and remove the bits of skull. They interact with families in their most fragile state, said Mark Fagala, who owns his own North Carolina biohazard removal firm and has 25 years of experience.
“The situation itself is vulnerable and it takes integrity on our part,” Fagala said.
But the lawsuit alleges Aftermath acted with “deception and false representations.”
Ricardo Donato, who is one of the five people suing Aftermath, told ABC affiliate WFAA the hours after his son’s suicide were a blur. “He showed me the contract; it was several pages long,” Donato said.
He signed it and was quoted $4,000 to $5,000 and told his homeowner’s insurance company would cover it. Weeks later he received a call from his carrier refusing to pay the $22,019.58 bill. Included in the bill were false charges for supplies and labor hours for employees who established a pattern of working only 15 minutes every hour, the lawsuit claimed.
Donato said he has been threatened with a lien on his home. Three of his fellow plaintiffs have had liens placed on their homes or their loved one’s home, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the District Court of Dallas County.
“It’s horrible because they relive this whole tragic accident, this whole event because it’s traumatic to them when they receive this huge bill,” Lyon said. “Our clients are not wealthy. They are middle class people.”
McGowan said all five plaintiffs initially gave Aftermath stellar reviews.
McGowan added employees of Aftermath are required to take frequent breaks because of OSHA heat stress requirements and try to fill the rest of the billed hour doing paperwork. But with jobs stretching 10 to 12 hours, that can add up to a lot of sitting around.
Rich Ross, president of the American Bio-Recovery Association, an industry trade group of which Aftermath is not a member, said taking breaks and billing for them is not standard.
“A lot of things they’re doing, they’re justified in. Then there are things they do where we in the industry sit back and shake our heads and say this isn’t right,” he said.
For now, the families faced with sky-high bills will have to wait for their day in court, said Lyon, their attorney.
“They’re stuck until they get this case resolved,” he said. “That’s the bad thing because this company can sit there and basically they don’t have to worry. They are just holding these people up.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Julia Horowitz, CNN
Matt McFarland, CNN
Erin McClam, CNN