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Tow Justice
by Ron Davis

Do owners of shopping centers have a legal right to tow seemingly abandoned vehicles from the center’s parking area?

That question recently arose in Texas when a car owner left his vehicle parked at a Houston shopping center to attend to business elsewhere. And when he returned to where he left his vehicle, he found it gone.

He eventually retrieved the vehicle from a towing service, paid the towing fee, and, apparently irate regarding what had happened, he requested a justice court hearing, claiming that the wrecker service had “failed to comply with Texas law.”

A justice court heard the appeal and decided that there was “probably cause” to remove the owners vehicle from the parking lot. Next, the vehicle owner appealed to a county court, but the outcome was the same. It too decided that the towing company had “probable cause” to tow the owner’s vehicle.

The car owner wasn’t satisfied, however. He claimed that the towing company did not have “general authorization” to tow his car. That’s because, he explained, the authorization of a tow came from “a party no longer involved in the matter.” But the car owner did not cite the record or any legal authority to support his contention.

Next, the vehicle owner challenged the adequacy of the warning sign in the shopping center’s parking lot. That sign warned car owners parking there that unauthorized vehicles might face the possibility of towing.

Texas law provides that a car may be towed without consent of the owner if certain measures apply: There must be a warning sign located in the parking area at the time of towing and for the preceding 24 hours. Plus that sign also must warn that unauthorized vehicles could be towed without the owner’s consent.

If that’s not enough, a sign regarding unauthorized vehicles must contain a statement describing who may park in the parking facility, while also prohibiting all others. The shopping center in this case complied with those required measures.

The vehicle owner in this case did not contest that the parking facility had a posted warning sign. In fact, he obviously knew that sign reads: “Towing Enforced” and “Unauthorized vehicles will be towed at owner’s or operator’s expense.”

The judge in the case handling the appeal decided that the lower court “reasonably could have found that the towing sign met the requirement to identify who may park in the lot and who could not.” Also, he added, it prohibited unauthorized individuals from parking in the shopping center. Finally it stated that an individual was not authorized to use the parking lot if he or she was not visiting a business within the center.

Displeased with the outcome of the trial, the vehicle owner complained that the trial court rejected his demand for a jury trial.

In reply to that complaint, the court stated that because the vehicle owner made an untimely jury demand and did not show that the demand would not adversely affect the court or other parties, “we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying it.”

(Benedict Emersowum v. Milam Street Auto Storage, Inc. doing business as Fast Stow Wrecker and Zone One Auto Storage)

Decision: June 2015
Published: June 2015



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