One of the fundamental principles of the American federal system is that when Congress enacts a law, it may override state laws on the same subject. Unfortunately, Congress isn’t always clear about whether it does override state laws. One of the less noticed cases from the Supreme Court this past term confirmed that a federal law overriding state laws regarding motor carriers “with respect to the transportation of property” did not override state regulation of the towing industry.
Some towing companies have produced unusual numbers of complaints, and, having ruined things for their competitors, have prompted many states to regulate the industry. In Oregon, among other regulations, towing companies must obtain a state certificate, and after towing a car, must promptly notify the owner of his or her redemption rights before the vehicle can be sold to pay towing and storage fees. It is possible to sue a towing company who violates the regulations.
In 2007, a New Hamphire car owner had his car towed from his apartment building’s parking lot so that snow could be cleared from the lot. Unfortunately, because he was bedridden (and subsequently was hospitalized for several weeks), he did not discover that his car had been towed. The towing company’s letter to the owner notifying him of the towing company’s intent to auction the car was returned “no forwarding address.” Before the auction, the owner’s lawyer learned of the tow and informed the towing company that the owner wanted to pay the towing company’s fees and get the car back. The towing company went ahead with the auction, and, when no one bid, traded the car for another one without notifying the owner.
The owner sued for several violations of New Hampshire’s laws regulating the storage and sale of stored cars, including violation of notice requirements and trading away the car after being told of the owner’s intent to retrieve it. The towing company argued that the federal law I mentioned overrode the state law. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that once the tow was completed, the towing company was no longer transporting the car, so the federal law didn’t apply.
If your car has been towed, find out as much as you can about the tow so that you can try to get it back. In Oregon, at least, the towing company has to notify the police within an hour in most circumstances, so it should be possible to find out fairly quickly. If you’re having trouble dealing with the towing company, talk to a lawyer to find out what can be done about it..