Refunds requested for 48,000 Curran pushes case against resort firm

March 10, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Glenda Meads hopes the consumer protection arm of Maryland law is long enough to stretch across state lines and grab a bit of vengeance for the mental torture she says she suffered at the hands of fast-talking campsite salesmen.

Mrs. Meads of Columbia is one of 5,000 Marylanders who signed agreements to buy campsites in Pennsylvania and Virginia after being lured to the places by promotional brochures from Outdoor World, a resort company in Bushkill, Pa., and then forced to take tours and listen to hours of sales pitches.

Yesterday, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. asked the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to order Outdoor World to refund all expenses to the 5,000 people who signed the contracts and another 43,000 Marylanders who visited the sites but didn't sign up. If he wins, the refunds could amount to as much as $60 million.

Mr. Curran maintained that Outdoor World violated Maryland law when it mailed nearly 6 million solicitations to state residents, indicating they had won such prizes as a BMW, a color television set or $10,000. But the "winners" would have to travel to the campsites to pick up their prizes.

He said that once they arrived, the company's persistent representatives required them to tour the campsites and subjected them to sales talks that lasted as long as nine hours, although most visitors only wanted to claim their prizes.

"This was indeed a scheme," Curran told the three-judge panel of Maryland's second-highest court. "The attraction was a prize. You might ask why they would suffer through this sales pitch. Many would not. The prize got you there; the prize keeps you there. The prize is the hook."

He said most people overlooked the smaller print in the ads that listed the infinitesimal chances of winning the big prizes. More often, campsite visitors received certificates for less valuable items -- and they had to send a $20 or $30 "redemption fee" to claim those.

Mr. Curran said Maryland law prohibits any company, including those outside the state, from sending material to residents here that claims they have won a prize but requires them to pay a fee to collect. He said state law also forbids companies from forcing anyone to take a tour as a condition of receiving a prize.

Mrs. Meads, a federal government worker, said a rotating pool of three salesmen cornered her while she was recovering from a herniated disc when she visited a Pennsylvania campsite to claim what she hoped would be a $10,000 prize in 1988. She was wearing a device that sent electrical charges into her lower back and was taking medication for pain relief.

She said that for five hours, the salesmen bombarded her with their campaign to sell her a campsite, although she repeatedly told them she had to eat and take her medicine.

"This continued all afternoon. They just manipulated me. They wore me down. Finally, I just signed just to get out," said Mrs. Meads, adding that she's not even a camper.

Later, she was given a certificate for her prize: a low-tech black-and-white movie player/recorder that she never claimed -- because she says it wasn't worth the $19.95 redemption fee.

Mrs. Meads and others who signed deals with the company attended yesterday's hearing before the Court of Special Appeals, the latest battleground in the 3-year-old dispute between Outdoor World and the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division.

The division had received more than 400 complaints about the company when it ordered Outdoor World to refund the fees in September 1990.

The order was reversed by now-retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph I. Pines, who ruled the state did not have authority to regulate agreements made outside Maryland.

Mr. Curran disagreed and is asking the Court of Special Appeals to affirm its power to regulate a contract signed in other states when it results from a "continuing scheme" that begins here with a solicitation to a Maryland resident.

Bedell A. Tippins, a lawyer for Outdoor World, admitted that the solicitations were misleading. He said the company was ready to reimburse anyone for travel expenses -- up to the state's borders.

"The tour is legal in Pennsylvania and it's legal in the state of Virginia," Mr. Tippins said. "When you have a consumer who travels to another state, they're no longer Maryland consumers."

A decision is not expected for several weeks.

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