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What To Do If You’re The Victim Of Irma-Related Price Gouging In Florida

In the clip above, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi notes that her office has received over 8,050 complaints of price gouging in the Sunshine State due to Hurricane Irma. She says:

“If you are a bad business going after our citizens, we’re going after you with everything we’ve got.”

So, what authority does the attorney general have and what can you do if you believe you’ve been ripped off by businesses taking advantage of the chaos?

The law on point here is contained in Florida Statute 501.160. The majority of this statute is pieced together in a fairly inscrutable fashion and uses quite a bit of self-referential legalese.

To sum it up, here’s the Florida Attorney General’s interpretation:

[D]uring a state of emergency, it is unlawful to sell, lease, offer to sell, or offer for lease essential commodities, dwelling units, or self-storage facilities for an amount that grossly exceeds the average price for that commodity during the 30 days before the declaration of the state of emergency, unless the seller can justify the price by showing increases in its prices or market trends. Examples of necessary commodities are food, ice, gas, and lumber.

Once a state of emergency has been declared by the governor, section (2) of the same statute–which is substantially easier to get through–reads:

Upon a declaration of a state of emergency by the Governor, it is unlawful and a violation [of the state’s Unlawful Acts and Practices law] for a person or her or his agent or employee to rent or sell or offer to rent or sell at an unconscionable price within the area for which the state of emergency is declared, any essential commodity including, but not limited to, supplies, services, provisions, or equipment that is necessary for consumption or use as a direct result of the emergency. This prohibition is effective not to exceed 60 days under the initial declared state of emergency…

Thus, despite myriad flecks of libertarian whimsy to the contrary, price gouging is illegal in Florida during hurricanes and the state’s Republican attorney general is dead-set on enforcing the law. Bondi couched her response to the libertarian argument this way: “You can not come steal from our citizens…Who would want to make a profit off water when people are dying?” She continued:

“It should be criminal, it’s not. But I will go after you. We will fine you $1,000 after every violation–up to $25,000 every single day–and I will be saying your name all over this country, not to do business with you again.

So, the law forbids price gouging–at least as a civil infraction–and the attorney general says she’s serious about using fines to hit back against it. But what does that mean for consumers?

There’s the rough rub: all you can do is document and complain.

The same statue that provides for the illegality of price gouging during a state of emergency also forecloses against any private action to remedy the most potent flashpoints of disaster capitalism. Section (7) reads, in relevant part:

[N]othing in this section creates a private cause of action in favor of any person damaged by a violation of this section.

The only prescription for price gouging-related ills during Hurricane Irma is reporting the bad conduct to the attorney general’s office. Their number is: 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.

Bondi also suggests that Floridians take pictures of price gouging and send them to her office directly. To do that, visit: http://myfloridalegal.com.

[image via screengrab; video courtesy CNN]

Follow Colin Kalmbacher on Twitter: @colinkalmbacher

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