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Supreme Court limits towing firms

In the case of a man whose towed car was disposed of, justices rejected the notion that the federal law that deregulated the trucking industry swept aside other laws limiting tow-truck operators.

May 14, 2013|By David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — A New Hampshire man who had his car towed when he was in a hospital recovering from a heart attack and the amputation of his left foot won a measure of justice at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 9-0 decision released Monday, the court said Robert Pelkey can sue Dan's City Used Cars for disposing of his towed car without telling him or paying him.

The case began during a snowstorm in February 2007. Pelkey's 2004 Honda Civic was parked legally in a handicapped parking spot in his apartment complex in Manchester, but he was confined to his bed.

Under the apartment's policy, cars were to be removed to clear the snow, and Pelkey's car was towed away. Soon after, Pelkey was admitted to a hospital to have his foot amputated. There, he suffered a heart attack.

When he was discharged two months later, he learned his car had been towed and was about to be sold. His lawyer said he contacted the towing company and agreed the storage costs would be paid. Though the car was just 3 years old, it was sold or traded, and Pelkey received nothing for it.

He sued the towing company under the state's consumer protection law.

Consumer rights advocates said the decision, while narrow, preserved some legal rights for the owners of towed vehicles. The justices rejected the notion that the federal law that deregulated the trucking industry swept aside all state and local laws limiting tow-truck operators.

"If the decision had gone the other way, a tow truck operator would have been able to tow a car and sell it against the wishes of the owner and leave the owner with no legal recourse," said Adina Rosenbaum, an attorney for the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which represented the New Hampshire man.

Consumer claims involving "the disposal of stored vehicles" remain open and are not preempted by federal law, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in Dan's Used Cars vs. Pelkey.

At issue was the scope of a 1980 law by which Congress approved a deregulation of the trucking industry. It said states and localities may not enforce laws "related to a price, route or service of any motor carrier … with respect to the transportation of property."

The court has said this law reaches far, and in surprising ways.

Five years ago, the justices blocked state efforts to prevent teenagers from ordering cigarettes online and having the cartons delivered to their homes. Delivery services and trucking groups had objected to these laws, and the court agreed they were preempted by the federal law.

Also pending before the court is a case from the Port of Los Angeles on whether the city can impose regulations on cargo trucks that operate there. The American Trucking Assn. says these regulations are preempted by federal law.

In Monday's opinion, Ginsburg stressed federal law involves "transportation" of goods. The "disposal of vehicles once their transportation — here by towing — has ended" remains subject to state and local laws, she said.

The New Hampshire courts disagreed over whether the claim was barred by the federal law. Monday's decision clears the way for his suit to proceed.

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