A Florida Bill Would Make It Even Harder to Sue Towing Companies for Illegally Taking Your Car

Courtesy of Allyn Alford
Arguably the most important rule for visiting South Beach is this: Watch out for overzealous towing companies. Tow companies for years have preyed on unsuspecting tourists and residents alike — in 2013, New Times wrote in a longform feature that Miami Beach's towing companies were orchestrating a "decades-long, politically sanctioned operation to hold people's cars for ransom for hundreds of dollars" and were raking in millions each year by tricking drivers into parking illegally using all sorts of schemes.

Now, a new bill snaking through the Florida Legislature would make it even harder to get retribution against towing companies that have hauled away your car illegally. A bill from Florida's GOP chair, State Sen. Joe Gruters, mysteriously deletes the entire section of Florida law that allows victims to sue tow-truck companies for abducting their cars.

Literally. The bill, SB 1792, just deletes this entire passage in state law:

When a person improperly causes a vehicle or vessel to be removed, such person shall be liable to the owner or lessee of the vehicle or vessel for the cost of removal, transportation, and storage; any damages resulting from the removal, transportation, or storage of the vehicle or vessel; attorney’s fees; and court costs.
Lest that seem too astounding to be true, a staff analysis of the bill filed by the Senate Committee on Community Affairs confirms as much.

"This section of the bill also removes the current language regarding liability for damages caused by improper removal, transportation, or storage of a vehicle or vessel, and for court costs," the staff report reads.

Amazingly, that's not all that's in the bill: The proposed law adds extra protections for companies that place "boots" on illegally parked cars. Under the new bill, drivers could not sue if they attempt to tamper with or drive away with a boot on their cars. Instead, the towing company could sue drivers for hurting their precious boot.

Thankfully, some attorneys have caught on to what's in the law. Igor Hernandez, a Miami-based personal injury lawyer, says his firm recently started representing people who say they've been victimized by local tow-truck operators. In just a few months' time, his firm has filed more than 60 complaints against local towing companies.

"This is a small area of practice we took on a few months ago," Hernandez tells New Times. "But we quickly noticed a pattern. Often, someone will complain; the towing company says, 'What are you going to do about it?' Then a victim calls the police, but the police say it’s a civil matter."

The problem, Hernandez says, is Gruters' bill deletes the entire section of state law that allows Floridians to sue in the first place. The bill also deletes state provisions that permit victims to win back attorney's fees from towing companies, a change that would scare most lawyers away from even taking an illegal towing case. And if victims can't be recompensed for legal fees, they'd be better off financially just paying a $200 towing charge, whether a tow was legal or not. Otherwise, even if you win in court, you'll still be on the hook for thousands of dollars in attorney costs.

Miami Beach's towing industry has long been dominated by two major companies — Beach Towing and Tremont Towing. State records show both companies have hired the same two lobbyists — William Barrett and David Custin. Records show both lawyers have lobbied state lawmakers on the House version of the bill this year.
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Igor Hernandez / Instagram
Just yesterday, Hernandez posted an image on Instagram with his colleagues as they prepared to drive to Tallahassee to speak against the law. In response, Ralph Andrade, a longtime lawyer for Beach Towing, posted a comment on Hernandez's photo. (Andrade did not immediately respond to a message from New Times last night.)

"Pigs get fed; hogs get slaughtered," Andrade wrote. "This wouldn’t be happening if you and your firm weren’t submitting attorney's fees' claims for $20k on $200 tows."
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli