Florida price gouging laws: too vague or just flexible?

Michael Giberson

ExxonMobil, among the companies under investigation by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services for price gouging following Hurricane Ike, has asked the state agency to explain just what price gouging is according to Florida law.

[ExxonMobil] officials claim the state’s rules for price gouging are too broad.

They have written to the Department of Agriculture asking for a definition of what’s considered price going during a state of emergency. They say if they don’t get a clarification, ExxonMobil may be forced to stop doing business in Florida.

State agriculture officials say the statute is written to provide some flexibility so that the agency can determine what is price gouging on a case-by-case basis.

The Florida Agriculture Commissioner, Charles Bronson, said the law doesn’t need to be clarified:

“We happen to think they’re very clear. We’ve ruled on them a number of times with a number of different businesses and we believe that we’re just going to go ahead the way we’ve been and that the law is the law, it’s pretty well spelled out. They should not have increased the price of fuel during that time and just as we’ve done with other businesses we’re gonna fine them.”

At issue are the meaning of phrases like “unconscionable price” and “gross disparity.”

The Miami Herald, reporting the same story, adds:

For the past year, Bronson’s agency has been investigating whether ExxonMobil overcharged suppliers in the days and weeks after Hurricane Ike struck the state in September 2008. The company has not been charged with any violations and notes that it has never been found to have violated price gouging laws.

Also see a Palm Beach Post story.

(In addition to prosecuting gasoline retailers and wholesalers who have charged unconscionably high prices, at least in the eyes of the Florida state government, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is also responsible for prosecuting gasoline vendors who charge unduly low prices.  See this story from 2002 in which the state sued Amerada Hess for selling gasoline ‘below cost’ after a competing retailer complained.)

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