Fighting a crooked tow truck company and winning

On Saturday, I pointed to a NYT article about predatory tow truck drivers in Los Angeles. I was especially interested in this incident:

Scott Shulman, a television photographer, said he raced to a pet store parking lot in West Hollywood last year after a tower hooked up his daughter's car when she went to a nearby automated teller machine instead of directly into the pet store.

Mr. Shulman blocked the tow truck with his car. The truck driver called a second truck to tow Mr. Shulman's car; Mr. Shulman called the sheriff's office.

"It was like the O.K. Corral," Mr. Shulman said. "I don't own any guns or anything, but I can see where this could get ugly." His daughter's car was released.

It turns out Xeni knows Scott Shulman, so I called him and asked him for the details. He kindly shared his story with me.

About a year ago, Scott and his wife were driving around the Venice area of Los Angeles on a Sunday morning when he got a frantic phone call from his daughter. She told him that she had driven to a mini-mall to shop at her favorite pet store, located in the mini-mall. She'd parked in the mini-mall lot. (Scott told me that there were only one or two other cars in the lot at the time, and that the lot has about 100 parking spaces. So the lot was almost empty.)

After parking, Scott's daughter walked to the ATM, which was adjacent to the mini-mall. After a 90-second stop at the ATM to get cash to spend at the pet store, she returned to the parking lot to find that her car was hitched to a tow truck. The driver had been hiding around the corner, waiting for an opportunity like this.

Scott's daughter pleaded with the tow truck driver to speak with her father on the phone, and the driver finally agreed. He said he'd "drop the car" if Scott came immediately with $200, cash only. "I'm ready to pull out," he warned. Scott was about four miles away and he told the driver to wait, and he drove as quickly as he could to the mini-mall.

"When I got there," says Scott, "the first thing I did was block him in with my car. I told him, 'I'm not moving until you drop my daughter's car.'" The driver was unhappy about this, and warned Scott that he'd called another tow truck to haul away Scott's car unless he moved his car out of the way immediately. Scott told the driver that he was going to call the Sheriff, which he did.

Twenty minutes later, says Scott, two "very nice" deputies arrived and assessed the situation. They told Scott that they'd had a lot of trouble with this particular towing company, but could not order the driver to drop the car, because the lot was private property.

Around this time, the owner of the towing company showed up. He, too, refused to drop the car, even when the owner of the pet store came out and requested that they drop it.

By now, Scott's daughter's car had been held captive for an hour and a half. The deputies told Scott that they would happily appear in court to testify on his behalf against the towing company, and that Scott would very likely win a quadruple damages judgment (about $800). At this point, the tow truck driver angrily called it quits and dropped the car.

That week, Scott called the West Hollywood City Council and learned that towing companies are required by law to accept credit cards, even though most of them insist on cash (imagine how many people would dispute the credit charges from a towing company!) and that they cannot charge more than the police garage charges (around $130).

Lesson? Do everything you legally can to keep the tow truck driver from driving away with your car. You just might win.

Reader comment: Tara says: NOTE: this is not legal advice, but…

One other requirement (at least in CA) is that the owner of the
property give consent for each specific tow (and not just generally to
tow vehicles) and be present at the time of towing. See California
Civil Code Sec. § 22658
. The property owner must also display "in
plain view at all entrances to the property, a sign not less than 17
by 22 inches in size, with lettering not less than one inch in height,
prohibiting public parking and indicating that vehicles will be
removed at the owner's expense, and containing the telephone number of
the local traffic law enforcement agency."

If a towing company violates these provisions (or any of the other
requirements of § 22658), you should totally sue in small claims
court! You can get quadruple the amount the shady company charged

Update:Here's a transcript from a KCET segment about crooked towing companies.

Sam Louie>> Police say not only do some companies illegally take your car, they also overcharge you. In Los Angeles, a tow and one day's storage should be around $120, but many companies try to tack on extra fees especially during nights and on weekends.

Tamar Galatzan>> A lot of these predatory tow companies have added all these additional, you know, storage fees, key fees, after-hours fees, opening the gate fee, all sorts of things which they claim they're allowed to because that's not mentioned in the state law.

Sam Louie>> But as of this year, Galatzan says there is new legislation tow truck companies must follow. By law, tow companies can tow your car from a private lot only after you've parked there for more than one hour. They must also have written permission from a property owner or manager who must be present at the time of the tow. Galatzan believes that this will cut down on the majority of the illegal tows and, for those who defy the law, they'll face prosecution as several have in previous cases.

Tamar Galatzan>> In both cases, there was a lengthy amount of jail time or Caltrans picking up garbage at the side of the freeway. The owners were put on probation. They had to pay restitution, in one case, fifteen thousand dollars to the victims that we had just identified of these predatory tows.


Reader comment:
I went with my coworker to get his car that was towed from our office parking lot (Walnut Creek, CA) during the night (he didn't have his parking decal — he didn't know we needed parking decals. The property owner never told us nor issued us parking decals). We knew about needing consent from the property owner and so requested to see it. The guy there told us that they had a general consent form that covered any towing they did at this property. He wouldn't show us any paperwork on this. We called the police and they confirmed that a property owner can, indeed, give general consent to a towing company to remove cars from their lot(s). The police also told us that the towing company has no obligation to show car owners any paperwork regarding a consent agreement between them and the property owner.

If you read section "L" of the previously mentioned Civil Code:

"(l) (1) A towing company shall not remove or commence the removal of a vehicle from private property without first obtaining written authorization from the property owner or lessee, or an employee or agent thereof, who shall be present at the time of removal. General authorization to remove or commence removal of a vehicle at the towing company's discretion shall not be delegated to a towing company or its affiliates except in the case of a vehicle unlawfully parked within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or in a fire lane, or in a manner which interferes with any entrance to, or exit from, the private property."

you can see that what the police told us is completely NOT true. General consent can NOT be given except in the special circumstances mentioned above.

It's unfortunate that the police were not well enough informed or unwilling to go through the trouble to protect us that day. In any event, we caved, paid the ~$220 (CASH) and took our beef up with the property owner for not giving us our parking decals.