Ben Prins, who runs a countertop business in Abbotsford, never thought about his contract with his waste disposal company until he tried to get out of it.
After eight years with Maple Leaf Disposal, he decided to leave for another service provider.
"I expected a bottle of wine and a thank you note," he said. "I got a lawsuit instead."
And he lost.
Prins was was ordered by the court to pay half of his monthly bill for the 18 months that were remaining on his contract.
He blamed himself for not reading the fine print about the company's automatic renewal policy and cancellation penalties.
Then he found out he's not alone — hundreds of other small businesses in B.C. have also wound up on the receiving end of a civil suit after trying to sever ties with a waste disposal company.
"At first, I thought, well I might just be the only idiot out here," Prins said. "But when you find out it happens every day, then something has got to change."
'Hundreds and hundreds' of cases
Prins took his complaints to his MLA, former B.C. Attorney General Mike de Jong.
He explained that he was required to send the company a written cancellation letter via registered mail — not email or phone — within a specific, 30-day window or his contract would be automatically renewed.
De Jong says B.C.'s courts are clogged with similar cases which suggests waste disposal companies need to do a better job of explaining contracts to customers.
"When you see the number of references to the courts — customers that are surprised and don't fully appreciate the nature of the contractual arrangement — then you've got a problem," de Jong said.
"I've never been one to rush to legislation, but you're seeing hundreds and hundreds of cases going to the courts."
Three major waste disposal companies that operate in Metro Vancouver — Maple Leaf Disposal, Super Save Disposal and Northwest Waste Solutions, which recently changed its name Revolution Waste Solutions — would not grant CBC's request for an interview.
Peter Chung, whose family runs a door and millwright business in Richmond, has a story that sounds much like Prins'.
He tried to terminate his contract with Northwest Waste Solutions, claiming its quality of service was poor and he was charged for services that were not provided.
"The small print in the contracts is totally unfair," Chung said. "It's one-sided."
He sent an email on March, 21, 2012, to notify the company he wanted to cancel his agreement.
Chung also got sued for breaching the terms of his deal, lost in court and was ordered to pay more than $7,000.
'Certain level of sophistication'
Lawyer Adnan Habib has dealt with about ten cases involving contract disputes between small businesses and waste disposal companies.
He says judges often rule against the business owners because they're expected to have a certain level of sophistication when it comes to understanding contracts.
Habib says, however, the agreements are unnecessarily complicated.
"We're talking about the rental of a garbage can," Habib said. "Do you really need to talk to a lawyer about renting a garbage can?"
In an email, the Waste Management Association of B.C. said it is not in a position to comment on agreements service providers negotiate with their customers.