$500 lesson: Damager must see damage

When Deborah Gilfillan did a "360" on Earlysville Road one day last January, she was lucky to emerge uninjured. The shoulder banks away sharply, but her car didn't slide down it. By her account, the car was "fine" at that point.

She got a ride with a passing motorist to a nearby house, where she called Collier's Towing Service. Collier's delivered the car there and Gilfillan paid the bill, then drove off to speak to the police officer at the scene.

"It was then," she claims, "that I saw the rear end of my car. Totaled! Smashed!"

According to Gilfillan, the officer told her that the hook pulling the car onto the road had slipped off and that the car had rolled downhill "into a small tree"– a statement he repeated in his police report.

This is where Gilfillan made her mistake. She got the car fixed and submitted a claim to her insurer, along with the police report. She assumed Collier's would be held liable. Huh? you may be saying. Wasn't that the normal thing to do?

Apparently not, if you want someone else to accept blame and pay the bill.

Glenda Jones, who owns Collier's, says that she "probably would have worked with" Gilfillan if she and her insurance carrier had been allowed to inspect the damage. Instead, Collier's received a bill for $3,800 for the completed work. Both Jones and her insurance carrier are adamant that they will not pay.

Gilfillan's insurer paid, and Gilfillan wound up paying the $500 deductible– which makes for a pretty expensive lesson. It's one we should all take to heart. If you believe someone is liable for damages, make sure that person has a chance to see the damages before getting them repaired.


Collier's raises rates over law

It's rare that you hear a defendant exulting over having lost in court, but that's what I heard when I asked Jones about her recent trip through Charlottesville General District Court. I wrote about the case when it was still brewing ["Not Lethal," December 2, 2004], and now I can report that it's been resolved– although the outcome had a surprising effect.

At issue was the fact that when Fax Ayres got his bill for being towed one evening from a downtown parking lot, it included a $25 release fee and $25 for special equipment. According to state code Section 46.2-1233.1, however, the only legal charge for towing from private property is $85 (plus $10 if it's after 5pm or a weekend). No other charges, if the car is claimed within 24 hours, are allowed.

Jones had only charged $55 for the basic tow, and wouldn't have added the release fee if Ayres had claimed his car during business hours (i.e., when an employee hadn't been required to meet him at the impoundment lot on West Main Street). That means that if she'd just knocked $10 off somewhere– and hadn't itemized the $50 in extra charges on the receipt– the total would have equaled $95, or the legal maximum. Instead, the bill was $10 over that.

As I've reported here several times now, by violating Section 46.2-1233.1, a towing company automatically violates the Virginia Consumer Protection Act– which allows damages of $500 or three times the actual amount, whichever is greater. Judge Robert Downer, accordingly, awarded Ayres $500.

What makes the victory's outcome surprising is that Jones, in response, has decided to raise her rates to the legal maximum. That means that even if you get towed in the middle of the day, don't require any special equipment, and claim your car during regular business hours, a tow that would previously have cost $55 will now be $85.

"This law," Jones declared, "helped me make money."

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.