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Vehicle towing disputes: For when one of the worst days of your life gets even worse  

Many of the companies that we work with are involved, either directly or indirectly, in trucking and transportation.  Even with all due care taken, sometimes accidents happen, and when they do, these companies require towing services, just like any other motorist.  If you’ve ever needed a tow for your consumer vehicle, you know that’s no fun.  Imagine a fully-loaded tractor and trailer…

Our firm is in Virginia and much, but not all, of our work is in that state, but the towing procedure is probably fairly similar in most states.  Until fairly recently, Virginia had a towing review board, but this was unwisely disbanded by the legislature.  Now, local law enforcement has a rotating list of towing companies of varying capabilities and goes down the line based on the required capabilities, simply calling the next company on the list.  While towing companies and drivers have to be specially registered with the state, they are not formally “licensed.”   If traffic is not being blocked and there is no emergency, most law enforcement will allow a person (or company) to choose a towing company – but law enforcement tends to take a fairly broad view on traffic being “blocked” and whether there is an “emergency.”

As a result, the person (or company) needing a tow frequently has no choice in who does the towing.  They sign no contract with the towing company, have no say in the rate charged or the destination of the tow.  Worse, many of these towing companies insist on towing to their own tow yard until their fees have been paid, holding the vehicle as “collateral” despite the fact that they have a lien as a matter of law in Virginia.  In the end this means that disputing the towing bill means either paying it and suing after the fact, or leaving the vehicle and incurring “storage” fees.

In recent months at least one towing company has been sued for some of its towing practices (oh, and this one), and ultimately settled while on appeal.  We are encountering towing companies that bring, and charge for, arguably excessive equipment, charge $150/hour or more per person on site and bring more people than needed, and charge minimum time (sometimes as much as 3 hours) that vastly exceeds the actual time expended and compounds the other problems with too many people and too much equipment.  This is all despite that fact that Va. Code § 46.2-118 specifically prevents towing and recovery operators from, among other things “Knowingly charg[ing] excessive fees for towing, storage, or administrative services or charge fees for services not rendered.”

Anyone who is towed has the option of filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s office.  In fact, even if you pay the bill or resolve the dispute in the end, I (and the Attorney General’s office) recommend reporting the dispute because the number of complaints against a given operator may lead to direct action against that operator.  Consumers (but not commercial vehicle operators) can sue under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, Va. Code § 59.1-196 et seq.  Neither of those gets the vehicle back, however.  To do that, you’re either going to have to pay the bill or post a bond either under a mechanic’s lien (if work had to be done as part of the tow, “alterations or repairs” or a garage-keeper’s lien.  Note, however, this can get the vehicle back, stop storage fees from accruing, and force the dispute to a hearing, but you also will have to pay the entire amount claimed by the towing company.  The court will set a return date and hear argument on the bill, at which point you may get some or all of the bond back.  The real value of this is that once the vehicle is back in your hands and the billing dispute is in the light, we have found that towing companies suddenly become considerably more reasonable about their fee.  Explaining to a judge 2 hours of billing for 45 minutes of work appeals to no one, apparently.

Navigating these bond matters can be complicated, and they start the clock for a hearing that, barring a settlement, will happen.  In our recent experience, this procedure is rare enough that clerks are very unfamiliar with the process.  We have sent clients to courthouses with cashier’s checks for the bond and, literally, a copy of the mechanic’s lien statute, to get the clerk on board.  If you find yourself in this type of bad situation, call us.  We may be able to help.

For more information, contact Dov Szego at 804.377.1263 or dszego@setlifflaw.com.

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