There is a great deal of information available on wrongful towing activity in Texas in the form of websites, news reports, and consumer reviews of towing companies. Many times, this activity is simply referred to as an “illegal tow or “illegal towing.” The term “illegal,” however, is not appropriate in all contexts. Illegal tends to be used most commonly in relation to activities prohibited by the Texas Penal Code or another statute imposing a criminal penalty. There are two areas of law that the term “illegal towing” fails to encompass – civil and administrative liability of a towing company and property owner/operator.
The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (“TDLR”) regulates towing activity in Texas. When a statutory violation is reported, the investigators and attorneys in the enforcement division review the complaint and file administrative actions or assess penalties against a licensee. Depending on the violation, the action can encompass both the towing company and the individual tow operator. In addition to monetary penalties and administrative proceedings, TDLR has the ability to suspend or terminate licenses. While this is an effective enforcement mechanism and deterrent, it does not necessarily compensate someone whose vehicle was towed in violation of the Texas Towing and Booting Act (the “TTBA”). For this reason, the statute is not entirely regulatory in nature.
The TTBA not only establishes TDLR’s ability to regulate and enforce towing activity, it is a consumer protection statute. Those who have their vehicles twoed can be thought of as involuntary consumers. The TTBA protects vehicle owners by granting them rights as well. First, the TTBA creates an expedited statutory right to have a Justice of the Peace determine whether probable cause existed for the tow or fees assessed were in excess of the amount allowed by state or municipal rules. This remedy, known as a “tow hearing” or “452 hearing,” is discussed further in another blog post, available here. The TTBA also makes a person who violates the TTBA civilly liable to the vehicle owener. The tow hearing and civil liability provisions of the TTBA are not exclusive, and nothing in the TTBA states that the election of either of these statutory rights precludes the other.
Civil damages in a lawsuit brought for a statutory violation vary depending on scienter. The real issue, however, is that one “illegal tow” results in three potential liabilities – administrative, criminal, and civil. The easiest way to avoid liability is to have properties, procedures, licensure, and towing signs reviewed regularly for compliance. Those who choose to ignore TTBA requirements do so at a great deal of risk. High tow volume can multiply this liability exponentially. It should be remembered that a license issued by TDLR is, by nature, limited in scope. Towing activity must be performed by properly licensed individuals and companies, using properly permitted trucks, and only on properly signed parking facilities.