Larry Bryant, who previously owned Bryant’s Towing, said that for the past five years AAA Mid-Atlantic has been using a faulty customer survey to evaluate the contractors they hire to provide roadside assistance to club members.
Contractors who score high on the survey are awarded a lucrative bonus payment, and Bryant said he received a bonus every month before the new survey process was implemented in 2006.
“Based on the size of my company, I received $30,000 to $50,000 month,” Bryant said.
Survey bonuses accounted for about half of his $1.2 million annual revenue earned from working with AAA, he said.
“The bonus was helping pay my payroll and my personal bills, and that’s how I survived,” Bryant said.
But after AAA hired Florida-based Sterling Survey to manage its survey program, which had previously been conducted via mail-in cards, Bryant said his survey results dropped off a cliff — and so did his bonus payments.
Bryant is seeking $18 million in his lawsuit, filed a few weeks ago in Chesterfield Circuit Court.
AAA spokesperson Martha Meade said the company would not comment on the suit.
At its height, the company had 18 tow trucks, 30 employees and five locations.
Bryant said AAA had previously urged him to expand into Charlottesville and Northern Virginia to provide service to club members. Bryant used bonus funds to finance new trucks, which can cost as much as $110,000.
Once the bonus payments dried up, Bryant said, he soon started falling behind on bills.
Bryant started digging around and said he found some major faults with the program. For instance, he called several customers who had been recorded as having a negative experience, only to be told that the service was excellent and that they thought they were giving the negative review about a different tow company.
The more Bryant complained to AAA management about the program, he said, the fewer service calls were dispatched to his company.
One event in particular led to Bryant’s Towing being eventually cut off from AAA.
After taking his concerns to Sterling Survey, Bryant received a memo from them addressing his concerns and explaining certain details of the program, including the margin of error.
According to the suit, the memo explained that to maintain a margin of error of +/-5 percent, a certain sample size was required. The suit alleges that AAA “failed to ensure an adequate sample size to meet the correct and stated margin of error” and intentionally did so to avoid paying bonuses as outlined in its contracts with towers.
The suit alleges that after showing the letter to AAA territory manager Charles Brady, who is also named individually in the suit, Brady offered a bribe of $10,000 for a copy of the letter. Bryant refused, and claims that as a result he eventually stopped being dispatched service calls from AAA. Brady declined to comment.
By 2009, Bryant said he had no choice but to shut down the business and get rid of his trucks. Some were sold, and others were repossessed.
Bryant said he still has a lot of debts to pay and faces lawsuits from multiple lenders.
“I got people suing me left and right because of this,” Bryant said. “My credit score might be 100. I’m trying not to go bankrupt. I owe these people money, and I want to pay them. If I win this lawsuit, they are going to get paid.”
Although Bryant is the first local tower to file suit against AAA, he isn’t the only one miffed by the 100-year-old motorists association.
Paul Fletcher, owner of Fletcher’s Towing and once the largest local contractor for AAA, said he is preparing his own suit.
“My company, according to them in their own writing, was a company went above and beyond,” Fletcher said, “but I never qualified for this bonus plan.”
Like Bryant, Fletcher said he always hit his full bonus before the new survey plan was implemented but afterward never qualified for the full bonus again, at most receiving $10,000, but usually $4,000 or $5,000.
Fletcher did his own digging and found missing gaps of time between surveys, which led him to believe that AAA was selectively choosing negative reviews in order to skew results below the bonus threshold. He also found that his score was based on 100 surveys out of the 6,000 service calls he was making a month.
Fletcher said AAA told him that arrival time carried 80 percent of the weight with the final survey score, so, last November, Fletcher beefed up his response times.
“I improved my ETAs to under 30 minutes for 92 percent of the calls that I ran,” Fletcher said. “What happened? My score went down.”
Fletcher said his company brought in $2.5 million in revenue when the bonus program was in full effect.
AAA pays contractors around $19 to $23 per call, Fletcher said.
“To change a tire on the side of I-95 is $22. When the bonus was being paid, it amounted to an extra $9 on top of that. That right there is your profit.”
After years of waiting for AAA to fix the program, as they said assured him and other towers were working to do, Fletcher finally got fed up and decided to break his ties with AAA and downsize his 14-year-old company. Fletcher now contracts with insurance companies AllState and Geico.
Fletcher said he sold more than 25 tow vehicles and is down to nine.
“I had to lay off a lot of people and sell my entire car collection to keep from going bankrupt,” Fletcher said, referring to his prized Corvette, a Lamborghini, a Super Sport Camero and a Dodge Viper.
“Better to sell them, pay my remaining employees and pitch in a few dollars to help unload that equipment so I can continue my business,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said he is looking to file his suit against AAA in federal court in the coming months.