Where do you turn if you feel a business is treating you unfairly or is breaking the law?
But for Napa Valley residents, there’s another option: the Consumer/Environmental Protection Unit of the District Attorney’s Office. Consumer protection units are common in larger counties, but unusual in smaller counties, like Napa, said Deputy District Attorney Patrick Collins, who handles such cases.
The unit fields more than a dozen calls from frenzied consumers each week, but also takes complaints related to environmental hazards. Common complaints include scam calls from people posing as representatives of a fake lottery or federal agency, false or misleading advertising, and illegal dumping in bodies of water. The unit has worked on cases of wineries discharging grape waste into bodies of water, he said.
“These are the kind of problems that might slip through the cracks otherwise,” Collins said.
The DA’s Office will attempt to mediate cases as a neutral third-party if there are only one or two complaints against a business, said Donna Lewis, a paralegal who investigates complaints. In that case, the unit may send the business a copy of the consumer complaint and ask it to respond. Consumers often prevail and are grateful to get some or all of their money back, she said.
The DA’s Office may consider filing suit if it appears that numerous consumers have been affected by a systemic problem. That’s what happened when the office sued the previous owner of Napa’s Midas/Speedee branch last year, Lewis said.
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“It sort of snowballed from there,” she said.
While some of the Consumer/Environmental Protection Unit’s cases stem from complaints, others are referred to them by licensing agencies or groups such as the county Environmental Health Division, California Highway Patrol or state Fish and Wildlife Department.
Environmental cases tend to follow after a neighbor complains about an oil spill, water pollution or other hazard in their community, Collins said. Most people seem to commit environmental violations on accident, but those can be prosecuted too, he said.
The unit often teams up with other DA’s Offices to resolve a case that affects consumers in multiple counties. Napa County’s office is one of 10 California DA’s Offices that investigates violations as part of the Food, Drug and Medical Device task force, Collins said.
Among the cases Napa County’s Consumer/Environmental Protection Unit tackled through that partnership was one involving the My Pillow company, a manufacturer of pillows and bedding that claimed its products could reduce the effects of restless leg syndrome, insomnia, fibromyalgia and more. The company didn’t have sufficient scientific proof to back up its claims, Collins said.
The task force split a $1 million settlement.
Even if the DA’s Office can’t bring a case against a business, Lewis said the unit may have contacts with state licensing boards that can help the consumer.