Customers win lawsuits against Norton Oil

Norton Oil didn't defend itself; president filed for bankruptcy.

Ten people burned by the sudden and unexpected closure of Norton Oil Co. turned to the courts Wednesday to try to get their money back for heating oil they purchased that was never delivered.

Each of them emerged from the courtroom victorious. But the judgments they won aren't likely to result in Christmas miracles.

I'm sorry to play grinch, but Norton's lawyer told me Wednesday the Phillipsburg company has no money to pay the debts. So the total of nearly $17,000 awarded to customers likely won't be filling their stockings.

"There's nothing left," attorney Charles Laputka told me by phone just before the hearings. "There's no money left in the company."

Norton officials even deprived their once-valued customers of the opportunity to challenge them face-to-face in the courtroom, because no company officials or attorneys attended the hearings at the Warren County Courthouse in Belvidere.

The customers who also had sued President Richard Norton personally got another lump of coal when the judge told them he had to dismiss those cases because Norton and his wife, Lynn, of Palmer Township, had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Tuesday. Their bankruptcy filing estimates assets between $500,000 and $1 million and liabilities between $1 million and $10 million.

"If you have a claim against them, you'll have to go to the bankruptcy court to deal with that," Warren County Superior Court Judge John Pursel said.

I told you two weeks ago how Norton Oil closed without warning last month after more than 70 years of selling heating oil in the Phillipsburg area and beyond, including Northampton County. The closure left people who had prepaid for oil, some of them thousands of dollars, scrambling to find the dough to buy oil elsewhere to heat their homes and businesses just as winter set in. Customers on budget payment plans who had built up credit balances are stuck, too.

Some customers have sued and hundreds of others have filed complaints with New Jersey consumer protection officials.

Among those filing complaints is Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. It prepaid about $26,000 for oil and still is owed about $24,000 worth, the Rev. Lori Kochanski told me.

The oil was to heat apartments on the church property, some of which are occupied by low-income families.

The church has pulled together the money to buy more oil and has started a collection fund to defray the unexpected cost.

"To make up this kind of loss, it's going to take years," Kochanski said.

The church intends to give some of the donated money to others who were left in the cold when Norton closed. "They've done an injustice to so many folks," she said.

All of the lawsuits heard Wednesday were filed by customers from New Jersey, including Shirley Covert of Washington.

"I prepaid my oil and just like everybody else; they disappeared, it seems," she told the judge.

Theodore Harwick of Hunterdon County testified that he had paid for his oil with a credit card and was hoping to get a refund by disputing the charge with his bank.

"It seems like I'm still exposed if Norton wants to fight me," Harwick said.

Other lawsuits are scheduled to be heard in January, including several filed by customers from Northampton County.

John Evans of Lower Mount Bethel Township sued on Dec. 4 seeking $2,347. His lawsuit says he enrolled in a budget plan to build a balance in his account for future deliveries, and that he had a credit balance of $1,247 at the end of August.

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