There should be one less docket bouncing around the Orange County Courthouse, now that my personal run-in with the notorious TowTruck Co. has been settled (By hook, crook, or the book, June 19).
To refresh, on Feb. 11, my car was towed from the 7-Eleven on Summerlin Avenue in Thornton Park. A quick visit to the adjacent Starbucks was my downfall, and there are many among my rank: Even after making a purchase at 7-Eleven, customers cannot leave the 14-space parking area; no if, ands or buts. I got caught. I had to drive to the holding lot on Orange Blossom Trail and release my car with $100, cash.
Back then, the tows from this particular 7-Eleven were so fast and furious that the scene made TV news. Further research was called upon to figure out what was legal and what was otherwise. It turns out that the relationship between 7-Eleven and TowTruck Co. is perfectly legal. For the most part, the tow-truck operation is following the letter of the law in its adherence to the city, county and state statutes.
My salvation was buried in the Florida Statutes, Title XL, Chapter 715, Section 715.07, and the Orlando City Code, Article IX , Sec. 39.86. There I found a handy provision that addresses what to do when an owner returns to their car while it is in the process of being hauled away. In that situation, the tow-truck driver must offer to drop the car for a $50 fee, half of the regulated charge of $100. Eureka. I had returned to my car before it started moving -- a critical stipulation -- and even chased the tow-truck driver out of the lot, only to have him stare me down and then gun the engine. At the time, I didn't even realize the showdown was being captured by a camera inside the driver's truck.
My visit to TowTruck headquarters resulted in a refusal to honor my request for a $50 refund. They did offer the amiable advice that small-claims court was my only recourse, and that I would lose when put up against their legal team. I went for it anyway, at the cost of an additional $125 out-of-pocket expense for court costs; this was in April. Yeah, the plaintiff has to pay the sheriff's office $25 to serve the papers to the defendant, on top of the filing fee. The fee rises commensurately with the amount of damages one is trying to collect. To collect my $100, I had to pay $100.
Then came the pretrial conference; on the appointed date in July, I showed up on time and the TowTruck folks were late. I filed what they call a motion to declare a "default" judgment due to their absence, which I thought meant that I won the case then and there. But there's something called a motion to "set aside a motion to default," which was filed by Paul Gren, owner of TowTruck. The honorable judge made a five-minute date on Sept. 2 to discuss whether or not he was going to declare me the winner by default or reschedule the case back into the system. As it goes, excuses for not showing up on time at the pretrial conference can be far-fetched or fabricated; judges will almost always, routinely, accept excuses. Another date for a pretrial conference was scheduled for Sept. 17.
Then something very human occurred. Gren approached me outside of the chambers and asked me to go over my gripe again. He listened and said he was going to check out a few things with the driver. If all went down as I said it did, he would refund the $50 I originally set out to collect. (I suggested he watch the tape. They don't keep them on file for any set number of days, so don't count on seeing a copy of it.)
Gren did call and make the offer. I countered with the caveat that he pick up my additional $125 in court costs. He accepted. The check's in the mail.
What did I learn?
Trespass towing is a fast-and-loose profession. There are hardcore drivers who'll play dirty to get your car, but they're not necessarily breaking the law. It's more of a matter of warped ethics. I lucked out in my pursuit, because Gren did own up to his driver's violation of the Florida Statutes. Still, I'll never be sure if he did it because it was the right thing to or because I'm on staff at the Weekly. In the future, I will not hesitate to follow a conflict through small-claims court, however slow the wheels turn.
As for the question of ethics, my interactions with the Orange County Consumer Fraud Unit were efficient. But unless laws are being broken, they're not going to do much except send a copy of your complaint to the person you're complaining about. That just serves to piss them off but not give them anything to fear, which may be all some people want.
Meanwhile, the game plays on. Cars are still getting towed at 7-Eleven in Thornton Park and all around the city. In most cases, it's a legal but aggravating call. While there are scores of legally acceptable posted signs at 7-Eleven, they don't spell out the rules. All around, one of the most practical solutions I've heard suggested is for Starbucks to hang one more sign that simply reads, "If you are parked in the 7-Eleven lot next door, please move your car immediately to the free parking garage behind us. Your car will be towed and we won't be able to stop them."
As for me, I'm parking in the free garage behind Starbucks and shopping at 7-Eleven. I'll let you know when they catch me.