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Complaints Persist Against Mail-Order Nursery

Posted at 6:30 PM, Nov 10, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What would you think if you ordered plants for your garden from a company online and got nothing but dead sticks?

Customers tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that a McMinnville business first exposed in one of our investigations more than three years ago is still at it. Back then, the Tennessee Attorney General took Summerstone Nursery to court trying to get the company to clean up its act.

But we discovered that the complaints haven't stopped, leaving some wondering why the Attorney General hasn't gotten involved again.

Denny Myers spends a lot of time, now that he's retired, working in his garden. And he was really looking forward to planting what he'd ordered from Summerstone Nursery in McMinnville until it arrived, he said, wrapped in barely damp newspaper.

"This was a disaster. Every single one was dead," Myers told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

We talked with Myers, who lives just outside Oklahoma City, by Skype. And he said the beautiful, healthy plants and trees featured on the company's website are not what Summerstone sent to him. He added that getting through to the company to complain was next to impossible.

"When you called the first time, no one answered? NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Myers.

"That's correct."

"And you called again and no one answered?"

"That's correct," he replied.

But this isn't the first time we've heard this sort of thing. Our investigation more than three years ago first exposed how customers received dead plants and then got little to no help from the company.

Hundreds had similar complaints and the Tennessese Attorney General sued Summerstone. As a result, the company agreed to change its business practices.

Now three years later, the Attorney General's Office confirmed that it's still getting hundreds of complaints.

"I think we've received a little over 250 complaints," said Jeff Hill with the Attorney General's Office.

Yet, he said the AG's Office has not tried to take Summerstone back to court.

"How many complaints does it take before the Attorney General's Office will do something?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hill.

"Well, there's not a number. But what we do is we follow up on it. We contact the company. We express some concerns and, along the way, they fixed some of the problems," Hill explained.

But the Better Business Bureau of Middle Tennessee said the latest customers' complaints are about the same sorts of problems.

"I think for a little while there's a little correction in the way the company operates, a lot of promises, but when peak selling season comes around, they're right back at it," said the BBB's Kathleen Calligan.

And Calligan wondered why the state hasn't done more.

"Really nothing has changed in the company's performance," she said.

But Summerstone's attorney insisted in an email to NewsChannel 5 Investigates that "Summerstone is doing an excellent job of keeping the great majority of its customers satisfied,"claiming that "Summerstone Nursery ... shipped approximately 80,000 orders" this past spring with fewer than 200 customer complaints.

Yet, according to customers' complaints, the company is still failing to answer its phone, is still sending dead plants, wrong plants, plants not as advertised, and failing to ship plants when promised -- all problems the company told the court it would fix back in 2011.

But after we started questioning the AG's Office about what it was doing now that the complaints hadn't stopped, we learned they sent an investigator to Summerstone's office twice.

Hill explained, "We have to gather evidence about what's going on, about the violations of the settlement and go into court and prove those."

And customers like Denny Myers, who'd hoped for plants he could put in his garden and ended up with what he describes as dead sticks, said it's about time.

"If you get that many complaints, somebody ought to be doing something," Myers said.

Summerstone has long refused to give refunds. Myers said the company told him that if he sent back all of the dead plants at his own expense, they would send him replacements during their next season.

He told us he'd had enough already with Summerstone so he turned down their offer and went elsewhere to get his plants.

Meanwhile, the AG's Office said that during their investigator's two recent visits to Summerstone's offices, he collected a lot of records and files -- and they're still going through it all before they decide what their next step will be.