Ogden shop owner pays $3,000, seeks others for class action suit over emissions test fines

Oct 15 2010 - 11:46pm

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(KRISTIN HEINICHEN/Standard-Examiner) Craig Butters, owner of SPS American Car Care in Harrisville, has paid a $3,000 fine for an error an employee made during an emissions test. He was originally fined $14,000, but fought it for two years. Now he wants other shop owners to join him in a class action suit against the Weber-Morgan Health Department over excessive fines.
(KRISTIN HEINICHEN/Standard-Examiner) Gordon Lyday, an employee of SPS American Car Care in Harrisville, checks the transmission on a vehicle Friday. Shop owner Craig Butters sued the Weber-Morgan Health Department in federal court and won over a fine imposed as a result of emissions testing.
(KRISTIN HEINICHEN/Standard-Examiner) Craig Butters, owner of SPS American Car Care in Harrisville, has paid a $3,000 fine for an error an employee made during an emissions test. He was originally fined $14,000, but fought it for two years. Now he wants other shop owners to join him in a class action suit against the Weber-Morgan Health Department over excessive fines.
(KRISTIN HEINICHEN/Standard-Examiner) Gordon Lyday, an employee of SPS American Car Care in Harrisville, checks the transmission on a vehicle Friday. Shop owner Craig Butters sued the Weber-Morgan Health Department in federal court and won over a fine imposed as a result of emissions testing.

HARRISVILLE -- Craig Butters last week finally paid a $3,000 fine for a gaffe an employee made three years ago in approving the emissions test for a flawed vehicle.

Butters' argument with the $14,000 fine the Weber-Morgan Health Department assessed for the blunder was finally resolved last month after more than two years in court when a federal judge ordered a $3,000 cap on all county fines of emissions inspectors.

One might wonder why anyone would hire lawyers to wrestle over an $11,000 difference of opinion for two years.

But it's a broader issue for Butters' SPS American Car Care shop in Harrisville when the business does 200 emissions inspections a month.

The numbers grow to possible six-figure amounts in total potential fines with more than 100 emission inspection stations in Weber County regulated by the health department's four-man auto emissions program.

Judge Dale Kimball's Sept. 28 cap ends five years of fines on a sliding scale based on an inspection shop's receipts.

"It's sort of a European way of fining," said Joe Chambers, Butters' lawyer in the successful lawsuit. "A millionaire there can get fined, based on his income, $300,000 for speeding."

Butters is recruiting among his fellow inspection shop owners to file a class action lawsuit to seek refunds on the fines from the county.

"Apparently we'll have to sue for it," he said. "A lot of people paid fines of $10,000 or more over three years ago. They don't have a chance because there's a three-year statute of limitation.

"But if I can get five shop owners who had to pay excessive fines in the last three years to join me, we'll bring a class action suit.

"It's huge money," he said of the fines, which shop owners pay in lieu of a six-month suspension. "Closing some of these shops who depend on the emissions inspections for six months would put them out of business. The whole thing is dangerous."

Butters was chairman of the advisory committee to the health department's inspection program until he had to step down in 2007. Officials claimed a conflict of interest because he was fighting the fine.

Friend Jerry Paskett, owner of Tunex in Roy, which runs as many inspections a month as Butters' SPS shop in Harrisville, remains on the advisory committee and sat through all of Butters' court hearings.

He and Butters believe the county got the case moved from 2nd District Court in Ogden, where the suit was originally filed, to federal court in Salt Lake City to avoid the glare of publicity.

"It's been a really tough, tough fight, a hard go," Paskett said. "At board of health meetings, they portrayed us as criminals trying to generate revenue illegally at the expense of clean air."

Butters estimates he has paid $30,000 in attorneys fees.

"This could have all been avoided if the health department staff and board would have listened to the advice of the advisory committee that the board of health had put in place for this very reason," Butters said.

"We knew the program needed help."

Lori Buttars, health department spokeswoman, said, "The authority we relied on was state law, which authorizes local health boards to pass local inspection and maintenance regulations."

Lori Buttars and Craig Butters are not related to each other.

Two years ago, Buttars said, Ogden's air became bad enough to be out of compliance with EPA clean-air regulations.

"We're serious about meeting these federal guidelines," she said.

"We don't run the emissions inspection program to generate money. It's a matter of compliance. Fines were assessed in association with violations in order to keep our air clean."

She said officials have yet to discuss either an appeal of the federal court decision or any question of refunds.

Weber County Commissioner Jan Zogmaister echoed that, but said either issue may come up at the Oct. 25 meeting of the Weber-Morgan Board of Health.

"I certainly wonder how many people that would involve," she said of Butters' threatened class action suit.

She said proposals in bills waiting for the Utah Legislature would make regulation of emission stations across the state more uniform.

"That will give us an opportunity to look more closely into all this," Zogmaister said.

Among the four counties in the state that conduct emission inspections, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties, only Weber levied fines exceeding $3,000, according to Butters, Paskett and Chambers.

The Weber health department on its own a year ago, with the lawsuit still progressing, agreed to cap the fines at $10,000.

"Now even that's not legal," Chambers said.

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