Sticker shock at the pump: an evaluation of the Massachusetts petroleum price-gouging regulation.

Author:Ball, Caitlin E.

"[D]uring any abnormal disruption of the market for consumer goods and services vital and necessary for the health, safety, and welfare of consumers resulting from stress of weather, convulsion of nature, failure or shortage of electric power or other source of energy, strike, civil disorder, war, military action, national or local emergency, or other cause of an abnormal disruption of the market which results in the declaration of a state of emergency by the governor, no party within the chain of distribution of such consumer goods or services or both may sell or offer to sell any such goods or services or both for an amount which represents an unconscionably excessive price." (1)

"Apparently, bicycles are the way to go on Martha's Vineyard." (2)


    On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. (3) The storm became the costliest as well as one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history. (4) By damaging oil drilling platforms, petroleum pipelines, and refineries, Hurricane Katrina disabled roughly 95% of the Gulf Coast's offshore crude oil processing mechanisms, which at the time represented 27% of the total crude oil production in the United States. (5) Following Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices rapidly increased by more than $.45 per gallon above the average pre-storm retail price, and extreme price fluctuations continued for weeks after. (6) Due to the swift and seemingly excessive rise in gasoline prices, many consumers speculated that the price hikes were a result of price gouging on the part of sellers seeking a windfall in profits, as opposed to a reflection of actual petroleum shortages. (7)

    Economists define "price gouging" as the practice of pricing goods above a reasonable market rate resulting in a surplus of revenue for the seller. (8) The federal government has not passed legislation regulating price gouging, leaving the matter for determination by the individual states. (9) Price gouging of petroleum products has emerged as an especially contentious issue. (10) While many argue that gouging is a form of "profiteering" at the expense of vulnerable consumers, and therefore should be prohibited, opponents of anti-price-gouging laws contend that these statutes actually serve to hinder petroleum markets by artificially constraining the price of gasoline, resulting in long-term price escalations. (11)

    The Massachusetts anti-price-gouging regulation prohibits unconscionable pricing of petroleum products during a market emergency. (12) In White v. R.M. Packer Co., (13) the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (First Circuit) provided guidance for applying and interpreting the regulation by devising a scheme for analyzing gross disparities in petroleum pricing. (14) In construing the statute, the First Circuit analyzed the plain language of the anti-gouging regulation as well as applicable contract jurisprudence. (15) Going forward, it will also be important for Massachusetts courts to address the views of economists who have evaluated restrictions on price gouging and their economic impact, while refining the existing framework for evaluating violations of the anti-gouging regulation. (16)

    This Note will first discuss the origin and meaning of "price gouging" and the impetus for states to enact anti-gouging legislation. (17) This Note will then discuss the existing types of anti-gouging laws implemented by the states as well as review the positions of opponents and proponents of price restrictions. (18) This Note will proceed to consider the history and judicial interpretation of the Massachusetts anti-price-gouging regulation. (19) This Note will go on to analyze the First Circuit's use of contract law and the statute's plain meaning in the White decision, as well as the possible economic effects of statutory price constraints in light of the court's decision. (20) The Note will conclude by proposing recommendations for Massachusetts courts to consider when analyzing a gouging claim in the future. (21)


    1. A Price Gouging Primer

      1. Origins and Characteristics of Price Gouging as Applied to Petroleum Markets

        Medieval philosophers and theologians maintained that the exchange of goods for money, services, or other effects should be determined by a "just price" derived from the customary value of the goods or by the item's natural worth. (22) Modern economists have rejected the "just price" hypothesis, and instead delineate the widely accepted theory of supply and demand, whereby prices are set by the interaction of the two factors in the marketplace. (23) Even so, when prices markedly exceed what an average consumer would consider typical, particularly after a market emergency caused by a natural disaster, consumers, politicians, and the media frequently condemn these price increases as gouging. (24)

        Price gouging is defined as a process by which a seller prices a product above its market value when no alternative is easily available to consumers. (25) The term also refers to a merchant charging an unreasonably high rate for his merchandise to create a windfall of profits. (26) Because price gouging typically follows an emergency or disaster and usually involves a necessary and inelastic good that is limited due to natural constraints or production restrictions, consumers become particularly susceptible to its effects as they are most exposed. (27) Therefore, unlike justifiable price increases due to heightened costs or attempts to stimulate profit, gouging carries the stigma of wrongdoing as it is frequently associated with greed on the part of sellers in tandem with consumer vulnerability. (28)

        Price gouging in the petroleum market occurs when gasoline retailers charge consumers unconscionable or excessively high prices during, or shortly after, a market emergency. (29) A "market emergency" is defined as a period of economic unrest following a disaster when supply levels of gasoline are unstable. (30) Although the precise meaning of "excessively high prices" varies by jurisdiction, it generally involves pricing at a level that is unreasonable when compared to prior rates, as determined through an examination of the seller's retail price and gross margin of profit before and after the emergency. (31)

        In discussing the difference between price gouging and acceptable price hikes, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found it permissible for stations to raise prices due to heightened wholesale expenses and transportation charges. (32) Nevertheless, while retailers' expenses, such as rent, labor, and electricity, may ultimately affect the ultimate price of gasoline, the FTC determined that the impact of those costs do not radically drive up prices, and therefore increases in those expenditures would probably not constitute a viable defense to gouging. (33)

      2. Price Gouging Codified

        Currently, there is no federal statute prohibiting price gouging of petroleum or otherwise. (34) Congress has considered several proposed bills, although none so far have been passed into law. (35) In the absence of federal legislation, many states have created and implemented their own price-gouging laws. (36) At present, thirty-four states have enacted some form of an anti-gouging regulation, some encompassing all commodities and others specifically targeting petroleum. (37) Three types of anti-gouging statutes have emerged: the price percentage cap model, which bars price increases over a set percentage after the declaration of a state of emergency; unconscionability laws, which prohibit the sale of goods at grossly excessive prices during a market emergency; and no-increase laws, which forbid any price increase beyond the amount required by the higher costs of the operation in the post-emergency market. (38)

        1. The Three Major Models of Anti-Price-Gouging Statutes

          Price percentage cap statutes prohibit price increases during a declared state of emergency over a certain percentage of the good's pre-emergency price. (39) Percentage caps range from 10% to 25% above pre-emergency prices. (40) For example, California's price cap law bars merchants from selling goods, food, or services at a rate of more than 10% the item's price prior to the declared emergency. (41) Under the California law, sellers able to demonstrate a rise in production or acquisition costs may receive an exemption from the price restrictions. (42)

          Anti-price-gouging laws under the unconscionability model bar the sale of goods at unconscionable or grossly excessive prices following a proclaimed emergency. (43) The statutes may define the products or services affected broadly, such as the New York and Virginia laws that pertain to "essential consumer goods," or narrowly, such as the Massachusetts and Indiana regulations that exclusively concern petroleum products. (44) The evaluation of unconscionable pricing also varies by jurisdiction. (45) The New York statute requires a broad examination of the gross disparity in pricing by comparing the price differences during an unspecified period of time before and after the emergency, whereas Indiana is more precise in that it identifies a price as unconscionable when it grossly exceeds the average price of the product seven days prior to the emergency. (46) Nevertheless, many state anti-gouging laws permit sellers to charge higher prices after an emergency if the increases are due to heightened seller costs. (47)

          The no-increase method is the most restrictive of the price-gouging laws because it prohibits raising the price of goods or services beyond any amount associated with the higher costs of doing business due to the market emergency. (48) The states that have chosen to adopt this type of anti-gouging law tend to sustain a significant amount of natural disasters. (49) The goods covered under the no-increase laws vary: the Georgia no-increase law applies only to essential consumer goods, whereas the Louisiana statute...

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