WILKES-BARRE – An Exeter woman on Wednesday filed a class-action lawsuit against a local oil company, alleging she and hundreds of other customers who received assistance through a state fuel assistance program were overcharged for fuel oil.
The suit, filed in Luzerne County Court by Susanne Pavlinchak of Scarboro Street, claims Lokuta Fuel Service of Pittston Township repeatedly charged her the higher "credit" price per gallon of fuel instead of the "cash" price that was required under the company's contract with the state's Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.
The suit, filed by attorney Bernard Walter of Shavertown, alleges other LIHEAP customers also were overcharged.
"No one likes to be taken advantage of, but the poor and elderly are particularly vulnerable and need to be protected," Walter said. "This lawsuit seeks to provide that protection."
Joe Lokuta, husband of the Lokuta Oil president Lisa Lokuta, adamantly denied the allegations.
Lokuta acknowledged Pavlinchak was mistakenly charged the "credit" price on one bill, but said the error – which amounted to $11.51 -- was an honest mistake that was later corrected.
Lokuta said the company goes out of its way to service customers, and he resents the lawsuit's implication that it "cheated" customers.
"I'm in business for 40 years and have 2,800 accounts. You don't have 2,800 accounts because you rip people off," he said. "We cater to our customers and try to give them the best bang for their buck."
According to the suit, Lokuta's contract with LIHEAP, which is administered by the state Department of Public Welfare, required it to charge consumers who receive the energy assistance payments the same per-gallon price that it charges any customer who pays cash.
Pavlinchak received multiple deliveries of fuel, which were paid in whole or part by the LIHEAP program, over a four year period. In January 2012 she discovered she had been charged $3.489 per gallon, which was the credit price, instead of $3.289, the cash price.
The suit alleges the firm made similar overcharges on other deliveries. It accuses the company of engaging in deceptive business practices in violation of the state's Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.
Joe Lokuta insisted the company has not overcharged LIHEAP customers. He said Pavlinchak's allegations were investigated by the state Office of Attorney General, which found no wrongdoing.
"We sent them over 700 receipts for deliveries we made. Nothing was found," he said.
Walter said it's his understanding that investigation is still ongoing and that the office also is looking into whether other area fuel companies overcharged LIHEAP.
Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.