Fred Grimm: Thuggin’ rep may hurt tow firm in court

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

Don’t know much about civil suits or liability law or wrongful death claims. I do know something about the public’s estimation of tow truck operators.

Insurers for Capitol Towing have a compelling incentive to settle a lawsuit filed against the company Thursday. Their lawyers surely dread the scenario of a South Florida jury calculating monetary damages in the Jan. 16 death of Elias Konwufine in Lauderhill. Capitol Towing will have more than its own lousy reputation to overcome. The defendant represents an industry regarded with less affection hereabouts than pythons or politicians.

Elias Konwufine, an associate dean with Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale, was bashed against his own car as it was hauled away from a no-parking zone by a Capitol truck. Konwufine’s wife filed suit in Broward Circuit Court eight days after the truck had hooked up her husband’s Mercedes-Benz just outside their Lauderhill home. Konwufine, 38, a father of three, had run out of his house to the cab of the truck beseeching the driver to stop.

The suit claims the unnamed driver, instead, “gunned” the engine and pulled away. Konwufine, the complaint alleges, “grabbed hold of the tow truck as it began to leave because as the tow truck left it swerved into him and was going to run him over. He was then dragged by the tow truck for several hundred feet until he could no longer hold onto the truck because it continued to accelerate and he was run over by his own vehicle.”

State law requires that a tow truck driver “must stop when a person seeks the return of the vehicle” and negotiate on the spot (The tow operator, by law, can’t charge more than half the usual towing fee to simply unhook the car).

Lauderhill police have not filed criminal charges against the tow truck driver. The driver, identified as “John Doe” in the lawsuit, told WPLG-Channel 10 that he was only trying to get away from the angry Konwufine. “He’s cursing me out, trying to get in the door, broke my handle off the tow truck, running next to the truck, jumped on the floor boards, pulling on my door handle, beating on my window.”

AN UNSAVORY REP

But in a civil case, Capitol Towing, a subsidiary of Superior Lock & Roadside Assistance LLC of Plantation, is up against more than the allegations in this particular lawsuit.

Towing operators have built themselves an unsavory reputation in South Florida. Certainly, in the 1980s and 1990s, they were as loathed as any legal business around, regarded as not much more than roving bandits, on constant patrol for cars they claimed were illegally parked, snagging them whether the property owner wanted them moved or not.

Leonard Elias, Miami-Dade’s consumer advocate, said the operators during that era often “held consumers hostage,” holding the cars in distant compounds, then charging exorbitant, cash-only fees for towing, then tacking on inflated storage costs. Elias said that based on the volume of consumer complaints they generated, towing operators were rivaled in those days only by those notorious independent moving outfits — the operations that commonly jacked up charges after customers’ possessions were already on the truck, refusing to unload until the customers paid their ransom.

“It’s not as bad as it used to be,” Elias said Friday. Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties all passed consumer protection ordinances that tamped down the worst towing abuses. But a few renegades still roam the streets and highways. In 2011, Elias filed suit against three pirate operations that misrepresented themselves to stranded motorists, falsely claiming they had been dispatched by police or AAA or by the state Road Rangers, then wildly overcharging for towing, storage and mileage (He wrung a $20,000 settlement out of Nu-Way Towing).

Miami Herald reporter Michelle Hammontree-Garcia described a nefarious operation in a 2011 story. “If your car conks out or gets a flat and William V. Lopez rolls up to give you a tow, you may be better off closing the window and calling police for help. Two Miami-Dade towing companies recently hit with 39 complaints for low-balling customers then overcharging them hundreds of dollars per service call have one thing in common: William Victor Lopez. Nearly a dozen disgruntled drivers, after viewing his photograph, said Lopez is the squat, balding man who pulled up behind their stalled vehicles and hustled them. He had them sign a blank receipt, hooked their disabled ride and charged them as much as $900 cash to get it back.”

And there was that brutal morning, in the early darkness the day after Thanksgiving, 2011, the shopping event known as Black Friday, when opportunistic operators hauled away 300 cars from a restaurant parking lot near the Sawgrass Mills shopping center. The unwitting shoppers had assumed that because the restaurant was empty and closed, they were safe. They then found, after a $70 cab ride to the tow compound with their captured cars, that the operators would only accept cash for their $160 bounty. The public outcry against the mass towing scheme was so furious that the Sunrise City Commission promptly tightened the city’s towing ordinances.

The Miami Herald discovered that the second degree misdemeanor fines levied for illegal towing practices, capped at $500, weren’t much more than a business expense for outlaw operations. The Herald discovered one operator in 2011 who had been cited for illicit practices seven times in the previous six years, but continued, unfazed, ripping off captive consumers. Other firms, rather than pay their fines, simply went out of business, then reemerged with the same trucks, same drivers, same practices but with a new name.

LETHAL BUSINESS

Towing confrontations can lead to more than just consumer complaints. In 2011, Jewell Omar Williams, 26, a father of two, was killed in an exchange of gunfire when he tried to stop a tow truck driver from hauling away a neighbor’s car in Miramar.

In Hollywood, in 2006, Jorge Luis Rivera was killed after jumping onto the running board of a tow truck, angered by a driver who had refused to provide him his $2 change after taking four $20 bills for a $78 towing fee. Rivera, yelling and pounding on the window, fell beneath the wheels as the truck accelerated.

When a tow truck driver drove off with his mother’s car in North Miami Beach in 2010, Antonio Edwards Jr. ran, infuriated, down the street in pursuit, firing shots from with his MAC-10 semiautomatic machine pistol. He missed the truck but managed to shoot himself and spent the next two days in the hospital.

In a 2010 report, the National Consumer Law Center looked at the potential for violence by towing in just repossession cases. “Not surprisingly, when the taking of an item so essential to a family’s success is conducted by unregulated entities, reports of incidents in which individuals are killed, injured or traumatized appear with disturbing regularity,” the NCLC report found. “In just the past three years, the publicly reported toll is shocking. Six deaths. Dozens of injuries and arrests. Pistols, rifles, shotguns, knives, fists and automobiles wielded as weapons. And, in at least three cases, repo agents towed away automobiles with children under the age of 9 inside.”

Towing companies have added to their image problems by hiring rough characters to drive their trucks. The lawsuit filed against Capitol Towing won’t help that rep. “The employees had a history of threat and/or violence and needlessly aggressive towing tactics” against the residents of the development where Konwufine lived, the suit claimed. The driver, it stated, “had brandished a firearm at the development only weeks before.”

The company’s record also plays into the rough trade stereotype that has plagued the towing industry. Superior, in its various incarnations, has been hit by multiple lawsuits and complaints. The Miami Herald’s Elinor Brecher and Michael Vasquez reported that Superior had earned an “F” rating from the Southeast Florida Better Business Bureau. They reported that one of the owners of the family-run Superior had a number of arrests and a drug conviction.

Tow operators, of course, perform a necessary service in congested, urban areas, where parking is precious and illegal parking would be rampant without the specter of tow trucks patrolling the streets. Of course, vultures perform a necessary function in nature, ridding the landscape of rotting carrion, but they’re still a tough species to love.

That’s the problem awaiting the lawyers representing Capitol towing, if this case ever goes to trial. No matter the facts, they’ll have a hard time persuading a South Florida jury to side with the vultures.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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