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If a towing company illegally towed or damaged your car, you have rights. In this article, we review California towing laws and how to take a towing company to California small claims.
Common Questions Regarding Wrongful Towing in California
We often receive many questions involving towing companies and California small claims. Here are some of the most common.
Can I sue a towing company in California small claims? The answer is yes as long as the dispute is for $10,000 or less (more on this below). Disputes involving towing companies are very common in small claims courts.
Can someone tow my car without my permission in California? Yes. In California, if your car is towed without your permission this is called nonconsensual towing. You don't have to give permission for a tow truck to remove your vehicle from private property as long as the vehicle is subject to the conditions written out in CA VEH 22658(a)(1-4), which is written out and defined further below.
Do Towing Companies have to notify you when they tow your car? No, but it has to be clear who towed your vehicle. One of the requirements for a legal tow from private property is meant to ensure this is done.
“(1) There is displayed, in plain view at all entrances to the property, a sign not less than 17 inches by 22 inches in size, with lettering not less than one inch in height, prohibiting public parking and indicating that vehicles will be removed at the owner’s expense, and containing the telephone number of the local traffic law enforcement agency and the name and telephone number of each towing company that is a party to a written general towing authorization agreement with the owner or person in lawful possession of the property. The sign may also indicate that a citation may also be issued for the violation.” (CA VEH Code Article 22658(a)(1))
Additionally, local traffic law enforcement has to be alerted within one hour of authorizing the tow:
“(f) An owner or person in lawful possession of private property, or an association of a common interest development, causing the removal of a vehicle parked on that property shall notify by telephone or, if impractical, by the most expeditious means available, the local traffic law enforcement agency within one hour after authorizing the tow” (CA VEH Code Article 22658(f))
What do I do if the towing company damaged my car? If the towing company damaged your car while towing it, you can sue in small claims court if they refuse to pay for the damages. Make sure you have an invoice or an estimate for how much it will cost to fix your car.
What do I do if towing company illegally towed my car? If a towing company wrongfully towed your car, you can sue the towing company in small claims. In fact, you could be entitled to double the storage or towing charges.
“(e) (1) An owner or person in lawful possession of private property, or an association of a common interest development, causing the removal of a vehicle parked on that property is liable for double the storage or towing charges whenever there has been a failure to comply with paragraph (1), (2), or (3) of subdivision (a) or to state the grounds for the removal of the vehicle if requested by the legal or registered owner of the vehicle as required by subdivision (f).” (CA VEH Code Article 22658(e))
What do I do if a towing company damaged my property? If a towing company damages your property while towing a vehicle, you can sue the towing company in small claims court if they refuse to pay for the damages.
What do I do if a towing company won't return property left in the car? For example, if you left your computer in the car that was towed and the tow company won't let you take it out of the car, you can sue the towing company in small claims.
Can I also sue the property owner who ordered the illegal tow? For example, if an apartment complex or HOA did not provide a clearly displayed sign as required by law with the towing company information, then you can sue them in small claims court.
How do I file a complaint against a towing company? There are many potential methods to show your dissatisfaction and file a complaint against tow trucks and towing companies. One option is to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Another is to file a lawsuit in small claims if there was damage done or if there are grounds for monetary compensation.
Overview of California Towing Laws
You can find the California private property towing laws in California Vehicle Code Sections 22650 to 22711.
CA VEH Code Article 22658(a) discusses when a private property owner or apartment complex can request that a car be towed including sign and notice requirements:
“(a) The owner or person in lawful possession of private property, including an association of a common interest development as defined in Sections 4080 and 4100 or Sections 6528 and 6534 of the Civil Code, may cause the removal of a vehicle parked on the property to a storage facility that meets the requirements of subdivision (n) under any of the following circumstances:
(1) There is displayed, in plain view at all entrances to the property, a sign not less than 17 inches by 22 inches in size, with lettering not less than one inch in height, prohibiting public parking and indicating that vehicles will be removed at the owner’s expense, and containing the telephone number of the local traffic law enforcement agency and the name and telephone number of each towing company that is a party to a written general towing authorization agreement with the owner or person in lawful possession of the property. The sign may also indicate that a citation may also be issued for the violation.
(2) The vehicle has been issued a notice of parking violation, and 96 hours have elapsed since the issuance of that notice.
(3) The vehicle is on private property and lacks an engine, transmission, wheels, tires, doors, windshield, or any other major part or equipment necessary to operate safely on the highways, the owner or person in lawful possession of the private property has notified the local traffic law enforcement agency, and 24 hours have elapsed since that notification.
(4) The lot or parcel upon which the vehicle is parked is improved with a single-family dwelling.”
What if I was charged an excessive rate for my tow?
If you were charged an excessive amount, then the tow company can be punished via a fine or even imprisonment for committing a misdemeanor offense if they knowingly charge a vehicle owner a towing, service, or storage charge at an excessive rate.
“(j) (1) A person who charges a vehicle owner a towing, service, or storage charge at an excessive rate, as described in subdivision (h) or (i), is civilly liable to the vehicle owner for four times the amount charged.
“(2) A person who knowingly charges a vehicle owner a towing, service, or storage charge at an excessive rate, as described in subdivision (h) or (i), or who fails to make available his or her rate as required in subparagraph (B) of paragraph (1) of subdivision (i), is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500), or by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than three months, or by both that fine and imprisonment.” (CA VEH Code Article 22658(j)(1-2))
What is Predatory Towing?
Predatory towing is when tow trucks and companies use a “spotter” who calls the tow truck to initiate a tow. Although it is generally not illegal it often is morally wrong.
How do you fight predatory towing? Due to predatory towing generally being a morally wrong practice and not something illegal, the best way to fight it is to be properly defended. It is up to you to be conscious of everywhere you park and what the local laws or regulations are; be aware and always look at parking signage!
Since predatory towing victimizes those who are illegally parked for a short time, you may catch the tow truck in the process of hooking up your car while they are still inside the private property. If this is the case, then some laws give options for the tow truck to release your vehicle for a lesser charge than if they were to tow your vehicle to a storage facility.
“(h) A towing company may impose a charge of not more than one-half of the regular towing charge for the towing of a vehicle at the request of the owner, the owner’s agent, or the person in lawful possession of the private property pursuant to this section if the owner of the vehicle or the vehicle owner’s agent returns to the vehicle after the vehicle is coupled to the tow truck by means of a regular hitch, coupling device, drawbar, portable dolly, or is lifted off the ground by means of a conventional trailer, and before it is removed from the private property. The regular towing charge may only be imposed after the vehicle has been removed from the property and is in transit.” (CA VEH Code Article 22658(h)
One-Hour Rule for Towing a Vehicle
Generally, a tow truck must wait one hour before they can tow your vehicle if you are parked illegally. A few exceptions exist, including if the vehicle is blocking the entrance or exit, if it is in a fire lane, or is within 15 feet of a fire hydrant.
“(5) Existing law prohibits an owner or person in lawful possession of private property that is held open to the public, or a discernible portion thereof, for parking of vehicles at no fee, from towing or removing, or causing the towing or removal, of a vehicle within one hour of the vehicle being parked, except as excluded.” (AB 2210(5))
Towing Company Damaged Your Car
A tow truck damaged my car in California, what can I do?
If at any point in the removal process there was damage done to the vehicle either intentionally or due to negligence, you are entitled to sue for those damages.
“(d) The owner of a vehicle removed from private property pursuant to subdivision (a) may recover for any damage to the vehicle resulting from any intentional or negligent act of a person causing the removal of, or removing, the vehicle.” CA VEH Code Article 22658(d)
What to do before suing a towing company in California small claims
Reach Out to the Towing Company Informally
The first thing to do when a problem arises is to communicate with the towing company as many disputes are often resolved out of court.
If the towing company does not agree to return your car or pay for your car damages out of court, then it might be time to escalate the situation.
Save All Evidence
You want to make sure to save all evidence related to your interactions with the towing company. For example, you want to make sure to save:
Any pictures or videos of where you parked your car, what your car looked like before it was towed, etc.
A picture of the towing company sign where you parked your car.
Any invoices, receipts, and written authorizations you received from the towing company.
Any receipts, invoices, or estimates to repair your car.
Written conversations you have had with the towing company employees (text messages, emails, etc) or anyone else with information on your towed car.
Send a Demand Letter
A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could write to the towing company to request that they return your car or pay for damages to your car.
If you eventually decide to sue in California small claims court, you are required to first request your money or property back before you can file the lawsuit. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is suggested you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter.
It is very common to request reimbursement by phone but you may have a higher chance of receiving payment if you do it in the form of a letter. Letters are oftentimes taken more seriously than demands for payment via text message or by phone. You can also save any responses you receive from the towing company and include them in your evidence for the small claims hearing.
If you are also planning on suing a property owner for illegally towing your car, make sure to also demand payment from them before suing in small claims!
How do you write a demand letter to a towing company?
Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to the towing company? Here are a few suggestions:
How much money are you owed?
Why are you owed money?
Your contact information.
Where to send payment.
Option to mediate your dispute (many organizations in California provide free or low-cost mediation and most courts also have free mediation available but many times you have to file a lawsuit to obtain access). More on mediation below.
Give the towing company a few days to respond (usually about 7 to 14 days).
Let them know that if they don't respond, you intend to sue because you didn't feel like they left you with an alternative.
Contact a Lawyer
If you think your case against a towing company may be worth more than $10,000, you may want to reach out to a lawyer in your area to see how much they think your lawsuit is worth. Many lawyers provide free consultations to determine if they can take your lawsuit.
Don't be discouraged if no lawyers are returning your calls. Why? Your case may not be lucrative enough for a lawyer. Usually, when a lawsuit is worth $10,000 or less, most lawyers don't find it worth their time. This is one of the reasons why small claims court was created! It is meant to work for people without lawyers.
The maximum amount you can sue a towing company for in California small claims court is $10,000
If a towing company owes you $10,000 or less, then you can sue in a California small claims court. If you are owed more than $10,000, you can still sue in small claims, but you agree to waive any additional amount you are owed.
For example, if a towing company caused you $11,000 in damages to your car, by suing in small claims you are agreeing to waive $1,000. If you win, you will win a maximum of $10,000.
Why would someone agree to waive any amount over $10,000 that they are owed:
Suing in regular court is more expensive, time-consuming, and complicated.
You cannot hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court making it cheaper.
Hearings in small claims court are scheduled 30-75 days after the lawsuit is filed.
How much does it cost to sue a towing company in small claims?
It costs between $30-$75 to file a small claims lawsuit against a towing company.
Once the lawsuit is filed, the towing company has to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them. This is called serving. You can serve for free if you have a friend or family member deliver the lawsuit to the towing company or you can pay between $40-$75 to have the small claims lawsuit professionally served.
If you are on California public benefits like Medi-cal, Food Stamps, and SSI, you pay $0 in court fees and serving cost
How to file a small claims lawsuit against a towing company
Step 1: Identify the legal name of the towing company, their address, and their "agent of service of process."
To sue in California small claims, you need to be able to correctly name the person or business you are suing. You also need to list an address for them on the lawsuit and later on, you will need to be able to serve them.
Look for the towing company sign. At the location where you parked your car, there should be a sign that states the towing company's name, phone number, and address. Take a picture or write down the information.
Fictitious Business Names. Many towing companies use a name other than their legal name to do business. They do this for marketing purposes usually because their legal name is too long. A name other than a legal name is called a fictitious business name. Each county has a database of fictitious business names where you can search for the real legal entity name. In this article, we cover this process in detail.
Business License Search. If you have the address of the towing company, you can search for their business license. Each city has a database of business licenses. Call the business license department for the city where the towing company has an office or their tow yard.
Search on the California Secretary of State's website. The towing company may be registered as a corporation or LLC. You will need to identify the name of the corporation or LLC. In this article, we cover this process in detail. It is important to identify the agent for service of process (someone selected by the corporation or LLC to receive legal documents on its behalf) as this is the person who will be served.
Determine if you should also include the owner of the property where your car was towed. Many times, the owner of a property can also be held responsible for damages to you if your car was not properly towed. To find out who owns a property, call the County Tax Assessor and ask who owns the property. In California, each county tax assessor has the information on who owns a property. They may also be able to give you a current address for them as you will need this address to find where to serve the property owner.
DMV licensed tow truck search. Using the California DMV licensed tow vehicle database, you can search for the real business name with either the issued CA number that must be clearly visible on the truck, the DBA, or the zip code where the company is located.
The Company BBB page can include licensing information or alternate business names under the Business details section.
Step 2: Complete "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)
This form starts the California Small Claims Court lawsuit process. Download here.
It is also known as the "complaint" or "claim."
Step 3: File "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court"
Each California Small Claims Court has a different procedure for filing. You have to check with your local small claims court whether they allow filing in-person, by mail, online, or by fax or we can file your case for you!
Step 4: Serve the towing company
If the towing company is owed by an individual (not registered as a corporation or LLC)
Once you file your California small claims court lawsuit, the next step is to notify the towing company that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" (also known as "service"). You must serve the towing company at least 15-20 days before the small claims court hearing (sometimes you are required to serve at least 30 days before the hearing). There are several ways you can serve the towing company including by having a friend serve, hiring a process server, or hiring the sheriff. You cannot serve your own lawsuit.
If the towing company is a corporation or LLC
Remember, you will be serving the towing company's "agent for service of process" as listed on the California Secretary of State's website. Learn more here.
The Small Claims Court Hearing
Once you file your small claims lawsuit, you will get a hearing date scheduled anywhere between 30-70 days later. During this time, the towing company may call you to try and settle the case. If you agree, you can close your small claims lawsuit.
To prepare for your small claims court hearing:
Research the law. Remember, in small claims you don't need to necessarily cite a specific law (unless you are basing your legal theories on a very unknown subject area relating to vehicle towing), you just need to be able to prove that you are "right" and the towing company is "wrong." Sometimes this can be as simple as proving that the towing company caused damage to property that belongs to you.
Where to research the law? Lawsuits against towing companies are very common so thankfully there are a lot of free resources. Here are some resources for California towing laws: the California Courts website on vehicle towing and the California Vehicle Code, If you are unsure about what laws relate to your lawsuit, consult an attorney or conduct your own research about the law (a quick Google search goes a long way).
Prepare your evidence. Pictures, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you should win. Remember, it is not good to show up to court without any documents or receipts. The judge wants to be able to base their decision on the evidence you bring to the court showing exactly how much you are owed and why you are owed money.
Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing the towing company and how you calculated the amount you are owed. You want to make sure you start with a broad statement like this: "Your honor, I am suing the towing company in small claims court today because they illegally towed my car and damaged my car in the process. The damages to my car are $3,000 and I had to rent another car for $2,000. Then go into the details.
Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, your filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for these costs.
Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, and one for the towing company representative).
Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?
Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or the towing company at the initial hearing. If the towing company loses the small claims lawsuit and appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.
Mediation as an option for resolving your dispute
What is mediation?
Mediation is a meeting between you, the towing company, and a neutral 3rd party called the mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you and the towing company come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit.
How can I try to mediate the dispute with the towing company?
In California, many organizations provide free or low-cost mediation. Run a google search for "mediation near me" and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. Many times they are run by volunteer mediators.
Many California small claims courts also have free mediation available. Each county runs its small claims mediation a bit differently so reach out to us for more information on your court. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.