Can I Sue a Towing Company?
Yes, you may be able to sue a towing company for any number of reasons. They may illegally tow your car. They might damage it. They might damage your belongings. You might find that property you had in the car is gone when you go to get it from the impound lot.
You may be able to resolve your dispute by negotiating with the towing company without having to go to court. Because claims against towing companies are based on state law, which varies, you may want to speak with an attorney to determine what your rights are and whether going to court makes sense in your situation.
What do towing companies do?
Most people who own a car will have to use a towing company at some point. Towing companies do more than just provide towing services. They may:
- Pull you out of a snowbank with a tow truck if your car gets stuck
- Jump-start your battery if it dies
- Change flat tires
- Bring gas if you run out
- Make emergency repairs on your car so you can take it to a service station
- Help transport motorcycles and other vehicles
In general, using a towing company means something has gone wrong. In addition, having to pay towing and storage charges can be frustrating for any vehicle owner. At a car owner's expense, a tow truck company might get away with predatory towing practices in plain view, but they can also provide vital services to stranded motorists. No matter the situation, tow companies must follow the law and may face consequences for illegal practices.
What gives towing companies the right to tow your car?
Most states authorize towing companies to tow and impound your car in certain instances. For example, if you are parked on private property without permission, a private property owner may have your car towed. That can include towing your car from:
- An apartment complex
- A private property owner's residence, such as if you block a private driveway
- A private parking lot, especially if the owner gives proper notice
- The private spots in front of a business owner's store, especially if it's marked as a tow-away zone
You can also be towed if you park illegally on public property. For example, if you have been ticketed by law enforcement a number of times and park at an expired meter or other prohibitive signage, the police can have your car towed. If you park on the wrong side of the street during a snow emergency, your car will likely be towed. Stopping in a fire lane or blocking a fire hydrant could amount to towable parking violations.
There are many circumstances in which unauthorized vehicles may be towed. State laws and local towing laws vary, so if you have questions about whether a towing company had the right to tow your car, you should consider talking with a lawyer.
What claims might you bring against a towing company?
A towing company must use reasonable care when towing and storing your car. If it fails to act as a reasonably prudent towing company in the same and similar circumstances and damages your car or your property inside it, you may be able to sue for negligence.
In virtually every state, you need to show the following four elements to state a claim for negligence:
- Duty: The towing company has a duty to use reasonable care
- Breach: The towing company failed to use reasonable care (e.g. by wrongfully towing your car)
- Causation: The towing company directly caused foreseeable damages
- Damages: You need to show what your legally recognizable damages are (e.g. property damage)
If you are able to show that the towing company towed your car without your permission or otherwise without legal authority, you may be able to show that it failed to use reasonable care and committed negligent towing.
If you show that the towing company damaged your car when towing it, you may be able to show a breach of its duty of care. A towing company could cause many different forms of damage, but the most common are:
- Windshield damage
- Bumper damage
- Tire damage
Breach of Bailment
You also may be able to sue for the breach of a bailment. Again, this depends on the state, but generally, a bailment is a legal relationship in which the custody of property is transferred from one person (the “bailor") to another (the “bailee") for safekeeping.
By taking possession of the property, the bailee (here, the towing company) agrees to use reasonable care in storing your car and any personal property inside it. If they fail to use such care, they breach the bailment and may be liable to you for any damages.
What damages could you recover?
Depending upon the basis of your claim, you may be able to recover various types of damages, including compensatory and punitive damages. These include:
If you base your claim on improper towing or illegal towing, you may be able to recover the fees for towing and storage charges. In some states, you may be able to sue for a statutory minimum amount as well. Check with a lawyer to find out whether your state has such a minimum.
If your car is damaged, you may be able to recover the cost of repairs. You will want to get estimates from several repair shops and take plenty of photos that show how your car was damaged.
If you had property in the car that was lost or damaged, you may be able to recover the cost of the items or the cost of repairing them, depending on the circumstances. You will want to have pictures of the items in the condition they were when they were in the car. You will also want any receipts for the items you purchased.
In certain circumstances, you may be able to recover punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended not to compensate a victim for a loss, but to punish a wrongdoer for particularly outrageous behavior. The circumstances of your case may justify a claim for punitive damages, depending on how egregiously the towing company acted. You may wish to consult a lawyer to see whether you have a valid punitive damages claim.
What should you consider when deciding to sue?
There are several things you may want to think about doing prior to suing the towing company.
1. Notify Your Insurance Company
The first thing you should do is notify your insurance company. Damage done may be covered by insurance. You may be able to be compensated for these losses, which would leave you only the towing fee and storage fees to worry about.
2. Talk to the Tow Truck Company
The second thing you should do is reach out to the towing company. You can look up their contact information by researching all the tow lots in the vicinity of where your vehicle was towed. They may be willing to work out a settlement, especially if you are able to show that they are responsible for wrongful towing, damage to your car, or lost possessions.
You can itemize your damages in a demand letter establishing that you are the rightful owner of the vehicle they towed. This goes a step beyond dialing their telephone number, as a formal written letter can be used as evidence later.
3. Consider Filing a Claim in Small Claims Court
A third option is to file a claim in small claims court. Every state differs, but in general, you are not represented by counsel in small claims court. You are also limited in the amount of damages you can recover.
Small claims court can provide a less expensive way to resolve your dispute with the towing company. You can learn more about it, including the procedure for filing, by checking the website of the court in your area. You will only have to pay a small filing fee.
4. Consider Consulting a Lawyer
If you're not able to work out an arrangement with the towing company and don't want to gamble on small claims court alone, you may want to reach out to a lawyer. Given the size of most claims, it's unlikely you will find a lawyer in your area who specializes in suing towing companies.
A plaintiff's personal injury lawyer, however, handles negligence cases and may be able to help. Before establishing a client relationship, many lawyers will offer a free initial consultation. Even if you decide not to go to court, having an attorney on board may be helpful when you're negotiating a settlement with your insurance company or the towing company. They can give you valuable legal advice about local laws and help you retrieve your car from the tow yard.