For a lawyer who practices mostly commercial litigation, I get this question a lot: “I got towed, and there wasn’t a sign; can I sue them?”
The answer to that question is, “Sort of, but you should figure out if you deserved to be towed before you do.”
We'll get to that.
As we all know, the best way to avoid getting towed is to avoid parking where you’re not supposed to. But there are times when cars get towed when they shouldn’t have been, so here goes.
You should have a four-step plan when it comes to fighting the tow:
1. Preserve the evidence
This is the step that’ll determine whether you should fight or pay the fees and move on. If you come back to where you parked and your car is not where you left it, look for signs designating the area as restricted parking. Take pictures of the signs, and take pictures of where your car was parked. If you can, get the names and contact information of anyone there — witnesses are good. Make a note of what time you parked and what time you got back.
2. Get your car back (although you don’t have to do this before you request a hearing)
If there’s a sign, call that number. If there’s not a sign call the local police department (Texas law requires storage facilities to inform the local police department that they have your car within two hours of receiving it). If you’re not in the city limits, call the county sheriff (they still have two hours to report).
Just so we’re clear, don’t call 911.
Once you find your car and go to pick it up, remember to be polite. You’re probably on camera, and now is not the time to be an advocate. The person behind the counter is probably not going to be persuaded by your legal arguments and appeals to his or her sense or sense of justice.
Make a note of your surroundings and the names of the folks that you deal with. Importantly—and this goes for things in general—remember to read what you sign. They can’t hold your car hostage for anything more than the posted fee, so cross out anything in the papers that releases your rights to seek damages.
3. Take a look at the law and see if the tow was right or wrong
Based on my cocktail party conversations, the most common complaint is, “There wasn’t even a sign!” Actually, that’s probably a valid complaint more often than not. I’ve been looking at the sign requirements, and it’s, well, convoluted.
The relevant sections are here, but generally: there has to be a sign, the sign has to be conspicuous, the sign has to be made of weather-resistant material, the sign has to state who can park in the location and that all others can’t, it has to state, “Unauthorized Vehicles Will Be Towed [or Booted] at Owner’s or Operator’s Expense,” must state the hours and days the towing restrictions are enforced, and it has to give you a phone number you can call, 24 hours a day, to get your car.
4. if you think that the tow was wrongful, exercise your right to a “tow hearing"
The hearing will be with the justice of the peace whose precinct includes the location of the tow, so you’ll probably get a fair shake. You can find which court to file in here.
With limited exceptions, you have to request a hearing and pay the $20 filing fee no later than the 14th day after your car was towed, but then you’re entitled to a hearing no later than the 21st day after you requested a hearing. That’s a lot less time to wait for your day in court than filing a lawsuit. There are several specific requirements for the request for hearing, but you can find them on the court website.
Once you get your hearing, there are two issues that the court can decide. One is whether there was probable cause for the tow, and the other is whether the charges for the tow and storage were within the statute’s limits. As a practical matter, the real issue at the hearing is going to be “probable cause”.
So, what is “probable cause”? Good question.
One court wrote, “Probable cause exists when reasonably trustworthy facts and circumstances within the knowledge of the [so on, so forth, etc.].” I’m not sure what that even means or how that applies in a tow situation, but the point is, you’re going to have to convince the judge that you were wrongfully towed. If you win, you get your costs and the money you paid for the cost of the tow and storage. But remember, if you lose, the court can make you pay the costs of the hearing. Doesn’t seem fair to me, but unfortunately, fairness and justice aren’t synonymous.
Now, if you go to pick your car up and its totaled, it might be time to call your insurance company . . . .
This column is written for general informational purposes only. Even small changes in the facts can change the legal posture of individual cases, and the law may impose a deadline for persons to bring claims. Therefore, if you think that you need legal services or expert advice, you should consult a licensed attorney. Unless otherwise noted, the content of this column is based on the laws of the state of Texas.
Jared G. LeBlanc is an attorney licensed to practice in Texas, the United States District Courts for the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western Districts of Texas, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court.