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Florida lawsuits allege price gouging

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Disasters (General)
Hotels and accommodation
Justice and Rights

(CNN) -- Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist filed lawsuits Tuesday against two hotels he said engaged in price gouging and other unfair practices as people fled Hurricane Charley.

Crist filed a complaint against a Days Inn in West Palm Beach and one against the Crossroads Motor Lodge in Lakeland.

"Hurricane Charley is the worst natural disaster to befall our state in a dozen years, and it is unthinkable that anyone would try to take advantage of neighbors at a time like this," Crist said.

"We are taking a two-pronged approach to fight this egregious behavior. Families putting their lives back together should not have to worry about price gouging."

The U.S. death toll from Charley rose to 19 Tuesday, the majority from traffic accidents, heart attacks and people electrocuted by live power lines, state officials said.

The state's latest estimate for the amount of damage caused by the storm is at least $11 billion, a number that is expected to rise as the costs are assessed. (Full story)

CNN was unable to reach anyone at Crossroads Motor Lodge for comment, and the manager at Days Inn also was unavailable for comment.

In the Lakeland complaint, the Crossroads Motor Lodge advertised rooms for less than $45 per night, but according to three affidavits, consumers who made reservations had difficulty getting their rooms.

All three were told no rooms were available. One, an 85-year-old woman, eventually paid $61.27 for a room, while the other two were turned away. One of those was unable to obtain a refund, the complaint said.

The other complaint alleges that a billboard near the Days Inn Airport advertised rooms for less than $50 per night, while the hotel charged more than double that to three customers who filed affidavits.

According to the affidavits, all three of the consumers were told the hotel had "only two rooms left," giving them a greater sense of urgency.

Crist said his office is investigating more than 1,200 complaints of price gouging. Florida's statutes require that the cost of necessities in the aftermath of a major storm remain at the average price of the previous 30 days.

Civil penalties range from $1,000 for a single violation to $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period.

Further penalties can come from the state's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, which provides for civil penalties of $10,000 per violation or $15,000 for violations against a senior citizen or handicapped person.

CNN's Rich Phillips contributed to this report.

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