Tow row: Dude, where's my car?

Early last summer, when the transmission in Michael Shifflett's 1979 Chrysler LeBaron gave out, he had it towed to Quality Transmission at Pantops Shopping Center. He claims that he had already called Quinter Garrison, Quality's owner, to say that the car would be coming. Since he wasn't dependent on the LeBaron for transportation, he wasn't in any rush to get it fixed.

By mid-August, however, he was ready to get the car back. When he called Garrison to find out when the work could be done, Shifflett claims, Garrison said he'd "get it in that week." However, Garrison allegedly called a week later, by Shifflett's report, to say that the car was gone and that he had no knowledge of its whereabouts.

Shifflett says Garrison called back a day later to say he thought the car was at Charlottesville Wrecker. Garrison then called a third time to report that it was definitely at Charlottesville Wrecker, but he had no idea who had ordered it towed. Garrison allegedly suggested that it might have been Ponderosa, which manages the parking lot where Garrison is allowed to use several of the spaces for cars coming into his shop.

Shifflett went to Charlottesville Wrecker on East High Street, where he was allowed to get his car for what owner Barbara Cosner calls "a greatly reduced price" of $80. The towing fee and impound charges, according to Cosner, were up to at least $200, but she was willing to reduce the price so that he could get his car back. Shifflett asked to see the towing order, which, he claims, had Garrison's name on it.

Infuriated, he filed a complaint with the state's Consumer Fraud unit and contacted me.

I visited Garrison at his shop, which shares a building with Jiffy Lube and is the cleanest, most organized auto-repair shop I've ever seen. When I arrived, he was bleeding the brakes on a big, shiny pickup– while his friend and part-time employee Wayne Hensley sat in the truck's cab. They were happy to answer my questions and to toss in the occasional story to illustrate how frustrating their line of work can be.

For instance, Garrison told me about the time he finished working on a car and called the owner to say that it was ready and the bill was $2,200. The man became indignant and refused to pay. As time dragged on and the car sat, Garrison went through the steps required to get his money: He filed a mechanic's lien at the DMV, ran a legal notice in the Daily Progress, and got ready to sell the car at auction.

At that point, the man– who had in the meantime allegedly spent $7,000 or so on a new car– surfaced, paid the bill, and claimed his car.

As for Shifflett, Garrison confirmed that he had called, in mid-August, to say that he was having his car towed in. After the car arrived, Garrison says, he looked it over and called Shifflett to say that "the transmission would have to come out." He claims that Shifflett promised to "get back to him," but never did.

Garrison claimed, and Hensley also attests, that he had predicted that the LeBaron would be there "for months and months." Garrison called it "a $50 car that needed to have $1,000 worth of work."

But what about the suggestion that he's the one who ordered it towed? He denies that and theorizes that someone at Ponderosa, thinking it might be abandoned, had evicted the car.

I went to Charlottesville Wrecker and met with Cosner after talking with her by phone several days earlier. In the interim, she said, she had spoken to the driver who'd towed Shifflett's car, and he said that when he pulled up in the Ponderosa lot next to the Le Baron, Hensley came out and told him that "that was the car to be towed." If there had been a signed receipt, Cosner could no longer find it.

I went from there to Quality Transmission and spoke to Hensley again, who said he'd seen the car being towed and said hello to the driver, but hadn't said anything else. On my earlier visit, he hadn't mentioned being present when the car was towed.

So this one will have to be he said-he said. The only lesson I can see is this: Don't have your car towed somewhere and let it sit; get the repair order in and stay on top of the transaction till it's finished.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.