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(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Suit: Air should be free

Plaintiff says Baltimore code bars gas stations from charging for tire hose

A class-action lawsuit accuses Royal Farms of illegally inflating its coffers while its customers inflated their tires, thanks to a little-known but longstanding Baltimore law.

Since 1980, the consumer protections article of the city code has required all gas stations to have at least one air pump “in good operating condition” and accessible to all customers — free of charge.

But class plaintiff Rebecca McCray had to pay 50 cents to inflate her tires in September when she visited the Royal Farms gas station in the 1800 block of Washington Boulevard, according to the lawsuit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

The lawsuit seeks to require Royal Farms’ parent company, Two Farms Inc., to provide air free of charge at its Baltimore locations, and to recover money for anyone who has purchased air at a city Royal Farms in the last 12 years.

Stacie Dubnow, a lawyer for the class, estimated the class size would be in the thousands. Dubnow, of Gordon, Wolf & Carney Chtd. in Towson, did not know how much in damages could be recovered but said it would be easy to determine based on business records.

“One hundred percent of what was collected was illegal,” she said.

Under-inflated tires are a “major cause” of tire failure, which causes 11,000 crashes a year, according June 2013 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Under-inflation can also lead to poor fuel economy, sluggish handling and longer stopping distances, according to the NHTSA.

The lawsuit cites 2006 statistics from the NHTSA that found one in three cars has a significantly under-inflated tire and that 660 fatalities and 33,000 injuries occur each year because of crashes related to low tire pressure.

“Some may view this lawsuit as frivolous but there is nothing frivolous about this issue,” said Christine Sarames Delise, senior public affairs specialist with AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Making available free air will help encourage motorists to keep their tires properly inflated. Hopefully, other Baltimore city retail gas stations will take notice and ensure they are being compliant with the city code.”

Messages left with officials at Royal Farms were not returned.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, alleges that Royal Farms’ failure to comply with Article 2, §10-3(c) of the city code “jeopardizes consumer and motor vehicle safety.”

“We see this case as an important public safety issue,” Dubnow said.

The lawsuit focuses on Royal Farms, she added, because it owns the most gas stations in Baltimore area, with 20. (The company has 16 other locations in that do not sell gasoline.)

Dubnow said she believes Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the state with a law requiring free air pumps, although the firm is still investigating.

“I’m accustomed to paying for air but it only seems appropriate it should be free,” she said. “It’s air, for goodness sake.”

Kirk McCauley, director of member relations and government affairs for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said he was unaware of any jurisdictions that have a similar law on the books.

The case is Rebecca McCray v. Two Farms Inc., 24C14006360.