By Sarah Paez
When Alexandria resident Dan Garcia lost his lawsuit against Advanced Towing Company, LLC for damages to his vehicle after it was towed, he decided to appeal on the grounds of the company overcharging. He won.
For years, according to Garcia, Advanced Towing, an Arlington-based towing company, has been towing vehicles and charging people at least $125 for vehicle recovery. Until June 15, when the Alexandria City Council approved a new City towing ordinance raising the maximum recovery fee to $125, Alexandria City code 9-13-3 stated the maximum payment was $75. Council also created a towing advisory committee, comprised of citizens and representatives from the towing industry. “There are several other violations that [Advanced Towing] frequently violate[s] that invalidate their towing, such as towing from lots with inadequate signage,” said Garcia. “If you talk to them, they will claim that there is some complicated legal argument as to why the Alexandria law is invalid. It is valid.”
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Garcia found that between January 1, 2012 and May 17, 2013, Advanced Towing towed 547 cars from Alexandria. If the company charged $125 for every vehicle—and it has been known to charge up to $150—that would equal a total overcharge amount of $27,350 and a total recoverable amount in penalties of $273,500-$547,000 under both the Alexandria City code and the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.
Since Garcia won his lawsuit, he has begun to speak out against predatory towing. Many residents who have their vehicles towed are reluctant to press charges, “because it's a small amount of money and a large time commitment,” said Garcia.
Other reasons people might not file a lawsuit are that they do not have the towing receipt, they are intimidated by going to court or they do not have the time. However, Garcia said all these problems are easily fixable. The towing company must supply the person with copies of all towing receipts and records and must keep those records for a year. As for lack of time and intimidation, Garcia found a consumer protection attorney who deals with all aspects of the case at no charge to the client, regardless of winning or losing.
Going through with a lawsuit has monetary benefits. The VCPA, under Virginia Code 59.1-204, gives a mandatory penalty to the plaintiff of $500 if the towing company overcharges. The award is either an amount up to three times the actual damages sustained or $1,000 if it knowingly overcharges. The company must also give the customer a refund on the towing if it loses. In addition, the loser of the case has to pay court fees.
Though the predatory towing has affected over 500 Alexandria residents over the past six months, the state is unwilling to get involved in the overcharging cases at this time. “Under the current code, violations of the ordinance are criminal misdemeanors,” wrote Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera in an e-mail to Garcia. “This office does not prosecute crimes – that decision must be made by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, which is completely independent of the City government. They have shown a historical unwillingness to get involved in the alleged overcharges. Changing the code to enforce violations via civil penalty gives the City government the legal authority to get involved, which we intend to do if the legislation passes in June.”