Do I have to pay for a service I didn't authorize?
September 19, 2005 5:30 AM   Subscribe

I know all the cautions about getting legal advice here, but here goes: I asked a tree service for a price for cutting down a dead tree in my back yard. He wanted too much money, so I never called him back. Two weeks later the tree is gone, and I have a bill from him. Do I have to pay?

I never talked to the guy directly. I left a message on his home answering machine, telling him my name and address and phone number, saying that I had a dead tree I needed removed, and I wanted to know how much it would cost. I don't live in the house where the tree is/was. He told my tenant that the cost would be about $400, he left a message on my cell phone asking me to call him back. I never contacted him at all. I thought the price too high, and I was going to explore other options (like approaching the neighbor to maybe split the cost, since the tree is close to the property line [though I don't know exactly where the property line is]). So the tree is suddenly gone one day when I'm at the house working on something. Then I get a bill.

I'd be happy to offer the guy $200 if he gives me a receipt marked "paid in full," since that's about how much I would have gladly paid him to remove the tree. It's a small town, so I don't want to be a dick about it, but I really thought $400 was too much, and I didn't want the job done for that price. I'm thinking that if I tell him "take $200 or take me to court," and it does go to court, I'll be likely to prevail.

Any other suggestions on what to do? Should I be a dick and pay him nothing?
posted by yesster to Law & Government (28 answers total)
You want to annoy a guy who is stealthy and knows how to use a chainsaw? Not a smart move...

Seriously though if I were you'd off to pay him something. Perhaps you could phone around for more quotations to get a feel of what a reasonable price would be. The guy did perform a service for you. It could just be miscommunication or a simple misunderstanding.

One other thing to think about - if he removed the wood from you yard is he now selling the wood for profit too?
posted by schwa at 5:39 AM on September 19, 2005

Hmm... Make sure your tennant supports your story. <optional>Make sure you had the right to remove the tree (will vary with juristriction).</optional> Now contact the guy. Tell him this was done without authorisation. Make him understand that you were still in the process of obtaining other quotes. Explain that you will give him $100 for the service, or he can take you to court for the full $400. Allow him to bargian you up to $200 if he so desires. Explain that he is likely not to receive any money and his costs will be significant if he pursues the second option.

posted by singingfish at 5:39 AM on September 19, 2005

My grandmother was preyed on by a guy who operated this way. She now has a rubbish patio and a rubbish conservatory she never really wanted. Don't pay him a damn thing.

(Well, alright, you should phone him in case it was a genuine misunderstanding, but remember that it's entirely up to you whether or not you pay him and if he gets the slightest bit demanding or aggressive you should hang up)
posted by cillit bang at 5:49 AM on September 19, 2005

I think singingfish has the right answer here. This sounds either like a case of miscommunication, or someone acting in a very slimy manner. Try talking to him and see how he responds -- if he tries to be intimidating, he probably was being intentionally sneaky about the tree cutting.

It doesn't seem like miscommunication to me, though. Who would just drop by to cut the tree without making an appointment or seeking confirmation in any way? What if you were having a barbeque that day?

In any case, if I were you I would record the phone conversation you have with him, and make sure to get as much of your future communications on tape or in writing whenever possible.
posted by ducksauce at 6:07 AM on September 19, 2005

1. Write down everything that happened, with dates and times. You will need this if you end up in court.

2. Call the guy. Tell him you were surprised that he cut down your tree, because you never authorized him to do the work. In fact, you were in the process of getting other bids. Don't say anything about payment, at first. See what he says.

3. If it was a misunderstanding, the guy will apologize and either accept no money or offer to give you a substantial discount. If the discount is big enough, take it. Done.

4. If it was not a misunderstanding, the guy will try to bully you. Don't fight with him on the phone -- you are not going to convince him of anything. Tell him as calmly as possible that the work he did was unauthorized and that you are not going to pay.

5. If the guy persists, ignore him for a while. Don't pay. Don't respond. He will probably figure that it is not worth it to try to collect. He will most likely go away on his own.

6. If the guy continues to bug you, tell him that you are going to do the following if he keeps this up: (a) call the police; (b) call the state attorney general's consumer fraud section; (c) call the better business bureau. Call of these people if he keeps it up.

7. If this goes to court, you'll be fine. If the guy does not have a signed authorization from you, it will be very hard for him to collect. It is also very unlikely that the guy is going to go to court over $400.
posted by Mid at 6:21 AM on September 19, 2005

Also, in response to ducksauce: don't tape your phone calls. It's illegal in a lot of states and also you don't really need to prove anything here, anyway. The guy has no written authorization for the work -- he's on bad footing already. A tape isn't going to add a lot more to your position.
posted by Mid at 6:23 AM on September 19, 2005

Recording your phone calls is perfectly legal in Canada, where only one party in a conversation must give permission for it to be recorded (and that includes you, if you're in the conversation).
posted by solid-one-love at 6:27 AM on September 19, 2005

The guy has no written authorization for the work -- he's on bad footing already.

Agreed, and this is the salient point. Understand first and foremost that, should this become a problem, the law is automatically on your side here. HE has to demonstrate that you entered into an agreement with him.
posted by mkultra at 6:29 AM on September 19, 2005

The same is true in about 1/2 of the U.S. states too. But, still, it's not necessary here.
posted by Mid at 6:29 AM on September 19, 2005

don't tape your phone calls. It's illegal in a lot of states

How about just not taping your phone calls if it's illegal in your state? I don't see any other reason why not to do it other than the hassle.
posted by grouse at 6:31 AM on September 19, 2005

Because it looks underhanded and weird even where it is legal. If you walked into small claims court (which is where a $400 dispute would go) with taped phone calls, the judge's first reaction would be to think that you are a kook, not an honest citizen who got robbed.
posted by Mid at 6:34 AM on September 19, 2005

You could send a letter explaining that you never contracted him to cut the tree down but, since he did in fact cut down the tree, you are sending him $200 in full accord and satisfaction for his efforts. You also need to write that on the check. Most states recognize this legal doctrine [.pdf] but you should Google for specific requirements in your state. I've personally used this successfully in a landlord/tenant dispute in the past.
posted by probablysteve at 6:35 AM on September 19, 2005

Just playing devil's advocate here...but are you sure he was the one who actually cut down/removed the tree? I know you're assuming he did it but doesn't hurt to make sure you know?

Nothing worse than accusing someone of something and the ensuing embarassment on finding out he wasn't even the guilty one.
posted by eatcake at 6:44 AM on September 19, 2005

If he talked to your tenant, is there any chance that the tenant gave him the go-ahead?

I have no idea whether $400 is a reasonable price for that sort of thing or not, but if I didn't authorize the work, I would be reluctant to pay anything at all...
posted by jzb at 6:45 AM on September 19, 2005

If I could find a local tree service willing to remove a tree from my yard for $400.00, I would jump at the deal. The rest of it does sound fishy and perhaps underhanded, but for rural N.H. that's a low price.
posted by Hobgoblin at 6:52 AM on September 19, 2005

Four hundred buck is cheap! If he were trying to rip you off the price tag would be a lot higher. I'd chalk it up to innocent misunderstanding and pay him in full.
posted by LarryC at 7:20 AM on September 19, 2005

Thanks to everyone who commented on my "tape your phone conversations" comment. Whether or not it is a good course of action still remains to be seen, but you made some good points from the courtroom perspective and I found them to be interesting.

In case anyone else was wondering, here is a full list of states where it's legal to record a phone conversation. Looks like it's illegal in 15 states.

If it were me, and I were in a state where it was legal, I would still do it just because I personally would rather have more legal power in this situation rather than less (especially if he threatens you), and you wouldn't ever have to bring the tapes to court unless they were needed.

But I may be saying this because I've had some really bad experiences with contract workers in the past (including both veiled and direct threats), so obviously I'm not unbiased.
posted by ducksauce at 7:37 AM on September 19, 2005

You're probably right that you'd win in court, but that's always best to avoid. You were planning to shop around? Go ahead. Ask for a few other prices and compare. If $400 is high, offer him something lower. If his price turns out to be reasonable, pay him.
posted by cribcage at 7:37 AM on September 19, 2005

While recording phone conversations in Canada is legal, replaying them to parties other than those involved in the conversation is not except under special circumstances due to privacy regulations (unless you specifically state at the start of the call you plan to). I think those special circumstances include things like police investigations, etc.

You may or may not be allowed to use evidence like that in court. I'm siding on the "not" side, as I've seen cases of insurance companies being sued under privacy regulations for using taped phone calls against their clients... (I saw this somewhere on Canada's privacy commissioner's site).

Just something to consider.
posted by shepd at 8:48 AM on September 19, 2005

If he talked to your tenant, is there any chance that the tenant gave him the go-ahead?

This is the important bit.
posted by ook at 11:13 AM on September 19, 2005

a few things - I know alittle bit about this, worked on a crew for a little bit whilst unemployed:
- tree removal is not cheap, or easy - 400 is a great price, providing that this isn't a small shrub type tree that can be taken down with a small chainsaw and dragged to the curb. If it was a one man job, I'm assuming you would have done it yourself.

And contrary to what many people think, tree removal services (at least the ones I know of) do not profit from selling any wood. Usually trees that need to be removed from someone's property are too small/unhealthy to provide any firewood, and disposal is actually paid for. (I know a few tree companies in the area drop off their chips to be turned into pallets and other particle board.) Before anyone thinks that they want to call a tree company and use the chips for their garden/backyard/landscaping-- Alot of it stinks, and is horrible when used in that fashion.

-bringing a tree of anything larger than a shrub in a populated neighborhood without training is just not smart. People are certified in this stuff for a reason, they have the proper equipment (which is much more than just a chainsaw) to take it down safely.

-If it is a certified/bonded tree company, it was most likely a clerical mistake between whoever gave you the estimate and the office, call them, be pleasant and explain the situation. If they are not, then still call, but be prepared for the worst.
posted by tj at 11:47 AM on September 19, 2005

The problem with encouraging the poster to get other quotes is that there's no tree to get quotes on anymore.
posted by phearlez at 1:48 PM on September 19, 2005

This is not legal advice, just my $.02.

Do not make offers over the phone. Make offers in writing, explicitly stating that the work was not ordered but merely inquired about, that the monetary offer is for the work regardless BUT that it is not stemming from any legal or contractual obligation. Then add that by agreeing to receive the sum, the receiver opts out of any further action against you.

Have it notarized if you like, so it looks like it got an official going-over, without actually being from a lawyer. You could get a lawyer just for the letter, but that's really going to start eating into the $200 you're saving. Also: call the BBB and ask about this guy's/company's file. Their history may tell you something about how genuinely litigious they are, and if they have a history of settling out of court. Then go ahead and make a complaint yourself, though wait till this is resolved.
posted by dreamsign at 2:01 PM on September 19, 2005

The problem with encouraging the poster to get other quotes is that there's no tree to get quotes on anymore.

Well, then, the quotes ought to be acceptably low. :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 3:19 PM on September 19, 2005

Expanding on what tj said, the tree man is also not selling that tree to a sawmill to be made into lumber. No sawmill will touch a tree that came from someone's yard. Their sawblades are very expensive, and are vulnerable to nails in the wood. They assume that any tree from a developed property had something nailed to it at some time.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:52 PM on September 19, 2005

If it's cherry or pear or some other speciality wood, there can be some value in it, unless it's been dead for a long time.
posted by springload at 3:12 AM on September 20, 2005

I'm a tree care professional and what everyone has said
about the job being cheap is right. Unless it was a small tree. Although the fact that he did the job without talking to you directly is completely ridiculous.

Don't sweat the $400. Pay him and never use his service again and don't recommend him.

And most tree companies pay to dump their waste at mulch making facilities nowadays. They grind everything up and dye it red, or black--I've even seen blue.

Was it a valuable tree though? Maybe he is the logger type of tree worker and is cutting up good logs for lumber. I doubt it tho.
posted by recurve at 3:25 AM on September 20, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice.

The tree was a maple, very straight, very dead. It was a large-ish tree, maybe 2' diameter at the ground.

I guess $400 isn't that bad for the job, but I still wouldn't have (and didn't) asked him to do it for that price. Instead, I would have done it myself, with some assistance from friends. At least I would have waited (though I know there's a risk leaving a dead tree standing for the winter) until next spring, while thinking over options.

I'm going to consult with our state's A.G. Consumer Protection office, then write a letter to the tree guy based on that.

It's such a small town that I really have to be careful not to get a bad reputation myself. Assholes have a tougher time getting services.

Thanks again.
posted by yesster at 6:38 AM on September 20, 2005

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