Suburban Express lawsuits lead to controversy on social media

By Corinne Ruff

A viral Facebook post has sparked discussion regarding fines and lawsuits from bus company Suburban Express.

The original post, which has been shared 789 times and “liked” 646 times in the last two weeks, as of 10:52 p.m. Thursday, traces back to the personal Facebook wall of Jeremy Leval, a graduate student at the University.

In his post, Leval describes an incident that occurred during a trip back to Champaign on March 31, on a bus driven by an individual who, according to the company, was not an employee of Suburban Express. Four days later, Leval said he received an email stating that he was permanently banned from Suburban Express and was issued a fine of $500 for liquidated damages and the cost of the ticket.

As passengers boarded the bus at the O’Hare International Airport stop, Leval said he overheard the bus driver shouting at an unidentified international student who he said did not understand that the driver was asking her to fold her ticket in half before she could board the bus.

“If you don’t understand English, you don’t belong at the University of Illinois or any ‘American’ University.” Leval said in his Facebook post, quoting the bus driver.

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Leval said he confronted the driver and told him his language was offensive and unnecessary.

In a statement provided to The Daily Illini, Suburban Express said after contacting the passengers on the March 31 trip, the company had not yet received “any first-hand knowledge of the incident.”

The statement also reads: “An offhand verbal exchange between a driver who is not an employee of Suburban Express and a passenger has been blown totally out of proportion by a meddling, self-aggrandizing student who has chosen to use this incident to promote his own agenda, which seems to be to call as much attention to himself as possible and to promote his own competing business.”

Suburban Express owner Dennis Toeppen said in an email later, “We take our obligation to serve all passengers with respect and professionalism very seriously.”

Meanwhile, several posts on the Facebook thread had addressed that Leval had attempted to launch a carpooling website called College Rides in May 2012.

“College Rides has not been launched, and it will never be launched,” Leval said in reply to a question about his former business plans.

On April 4, the same day Leval wrote his post, Suburban Express sent an email to passengers who were on Trip 705, asking if they had noticed an incident on the bus, said Hanyu Gu, senior in Business and one of the recipients of the message.

Gu said he was sitting two seats behind Leval when he witnessed the scene. He replied to the email: “The attitude of the driver was very rude and arrogant, which made me feel unpleasant. I didn’t ask the details about the quarrel but I don’t think in any situation the driver should talk to a passenger like that.”

Gu’s response was mainly directed toward the interaction between Leval and the bus driver. He added that it was also in reference to the incident he heard between the international student and the bus driver.

But in the statement provided to The Daily Illini, Suburban Express maintained it was not directly informed of the incident.

While a lawsuit hasn’t been filed against Leval, other students, who say they initially disputed the fine, have been the target of lawsuits. These have been a point of discussion on Reddit and Renren, a Chinese social networking service.

According to Judici, an Illinois database that holds public records for cases in 64 circuit courts, Suburban Express filed 44lawsuits this year in Ford County against passengers for tort or contract damages, meaning defendants violated the company’s written terms and conditions, defendants say. Passengers must agree to these terms when purchasing a ticket.

Thomas Betz, student legal directing attorney at the University, said he has noticed a significant increase in the number of students coming in to talk about fines from the bus company in the last month. For privacy regulations, Betz said he could not specify the exact number of students.

“We’ve had problems over the years but not to the sheer volume as we have now,” he said.

According to the Student Legal Services Operational Plan, which Dean of Students Kenneth Ballom adopted in June 2012, University attorneys can only represent students who have cases in or originating in Champaign County.

Although Betz cannot represent students in this situation, he said he is advising them to submit complaints to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

International student Yu Zhang, senior in Business, said she sought help from Student Legal Services and filed a complaint after she was notified Jan. 30 of the $198.03 fine she would have to pay for violating the Suburban Express’ terms and services. She said she used her ticket on the wrong bus on Dec. 17, 2011.

Zhang said she was summoned to court March 19 — over the University’s spring break — but did not attend the court date.

“I already booked a trip (to Houston) and there was no way I could come back on time,” said Zhang, who paid $320.03, including court fees after the case was settled.

Betz said defendants who do not show up to the case will automatically lose.

Ford County circuit clerk Kim Evans said she has received around 30 phone calls from students and parents showing concern over the pending lawsuits since March 4.

“It is very time consuming,” she said. “This has been a big deal, dealing with parents and students that are upset and saying they would like a way out of here that is not this scary.”

Evans said many of the students and parents she talked with said they were scared because they were suddenly paying much more than their original ticket fee.

She also said it is taking every one of the five employees who works in her office to handle the bulk of the lawsuits, which she says have been coming in at the same time.

“I heard he was coming with a whole bunch more,” Evans said, referring to a conversation she had with Toeppen.

To spread awareness to international students who use Suburban Express frequently, graduate student Donghai Gai, the vice president of the University’s chapter of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, said his organization is continuing the conversation that was sparked by Leval’s post in a forum on its website.

“It’s something people should be aware of when buying their ticket,” Gai said.

Leval said he will also continue to use the Facebook thread as a means for communicating with students. He is also seeking legal advice for how to move forward with the situation.

He added: “It’s a shame that for standing up for someone who was publicly humiliated, I was banned. If that is acceptable to this company, then there is a serous issue, and it needs to be immediately addressed.”

Corinne can be reached at [email protected].

Clarification: In a previous version of this article, Hanyu Gu described two incidents: one between a bus driver and an international student and one between a bus driver and fellow rider Jeremy Level. In the quotation, Gu was mainly referring to the interaction between Jeremy Leval and the bus driver, he said Thursday. Gu added his response to Suburban Express was also referring to the  interaction he heard  between the international student and the bus driver.