Towings spur suits against local company

by Brian Close

The practice is common on or near the University’s crowded campus. A student parks his or her car in a lot reserved for paying customers.
And the tow truck rolls.
After a quick hook-up, a truck tows the car to a secure lot, awaiting payment of more than $120.
Usually the driver knows what he or she did wrong. The driver pays the fee, retrieves the car and maybe learns a lesson.
But when towing companies make a mistake, such as hauling a car from the wrong lot or damaging a car during the tow, it often ends up in court.
Two towing companies servicing campus have very different records in Hennepin County courts.
Gopher Towing, which only services areas near the University, has been sued only once. They were cleared of any wrongdoing. In contrast, during the last five years, Cedar Towing has faced 63 lawsuits. They lost 30 of those cases, resulting in judgments against them totaling $27,973.
Cedar Towing, which contracts with many University business and apartment lots, tows vehicles from about 500 lots around Minneapolis.
Tom and Julie Rodrigue, who own Cedar Towing, said many of the lawsuits occur because car owners are angry about being towed.
That would explain why Cedar won six of the seven conciliation court cases brought against it this year.
But some who have dealt with the company say management does not acknowledge its mistakes, forcing people to sue to collect damages.
One driver who eventually did collect from Cedar is Brian Stinson, a St. Louis Park, Minn., resident.
When his car was towed from an unmarked lot in St. Paul that was being plowed, he called the company that owned it. Company officials said they had not authorized the tow.
After retrieving his car, Stinson said he tried discussing the matter with Cedar Towing manager Al Blake.
“He was very belligerent and wouldn’t help me at all,” Stinson said.
Stinson also complained that the authorization signature was illegible, making it impossible to tell who authorized the tow. And nobody took responsibility for the authorization.
Blake claims the plow company made a mistake in towing Stinson’s car. But Stinson said the lot was already plowed when he parked there.
After calling Cedar four or five times the next month, Stinson filed suit in Hennepin County Conciliation Court.
Cedar Towing officials failed to appear in court, giving Stinson the judgment by default. The $288 the court awarded him was more than twice his towing fee.
But Stinson’s troubles didn’t stop there. Cedar didn’t pay the conciliation court judgment.
“I guess that’s the usual procedure, to let it go all the way to the end,” he said.
Stinson then received a transcript of the judgment, making it valid in district court. Only then could he have the Hennepin County sheriff go to Cedar’s office and simply take the money the company owed Stinson.
Catherine Owen, a Minneapolis attorney who has represented insurance companies in suits against Cedar, said the towing company often does not respond to complaints.
And she agreed that after someone wins a lawsuit against the company, it is difficult to collect.
“Even if people get a judgment against them, they still have to go through the rigamarole to try to get the money out of them,” she said.
Hennepin County records show 10 of the 20 Hennepin County District Court judgments against Cedar from the past five years are not fully satisfied, which means either Cedar hasn’t paid them or the parties haven’t sent the necessary paperwork.
The Rodrigues say they paid the judgments. In addition, they said they hired a lawyer several years ago to correct the records, which they claim are mistaken.
While looking at computer printouts of cases against the company, Tom Rodrigue said, “This thing is all screwed up.”
He added that many of the lawsuits claim there is damage to owners’ cars. Often times, he said, the insurance company sues before Cedar even sees the car.
Gene Buell, president of Gopher Towing, agreed that claims of damage are often false. He said many times the owner of the car will inspect the car much more closely after it was towed, finding problems that actually had existed for some time.
Tom Rodrigue acknowledged that occasionally cars will get damaged in the towing process, but said every complaint is reviewed.
“If we do the damage, we take care of it,” he said. “Our drivers are instructed `If you feel you damaged a car, tell us so we can take care of it.'”
He then discussed the measures Cedar takes in order to avoid mistakes when preparing to tow.
When Cedar officials receive a call, they check the reporting person’s name against a list of people who can authorize tows. If the caller’s name appears, a truck is sent to the site and a person on the list must sign the authorization form.
Once Cedar has permission to tow, the car’s identifying information is called and faxed to Minneapolis police so city officials have a record of the car’s location.
At that point the tow driver brings the car to Cedar’s lot, which is located near Hiawatha Avenue and 24th Street.
A sign in the sparse office instructs car owners to pay $140 in cash or credit cards. If the car was in the lot for more than 24 hours, there are additional charges.
Fourteen parties have complained to the Better Business Bureau within the last three years about Cedar’s towing charges, which are twice as high as the city’s fees. However, Cedar officials defended their rates to the bureau. The company maintains a good rating with the agency.
Private tows cost more, Cedar officials explained, because of higher costs associated with driving to a lot where the owner can retrieve his or her car for free.
In addition, Tom Rodrigue said many of the approximately 250 cars in his lot are abandoned, which means he is responsible for their disposal. Since many sites won’t take certain cars, he often loses money on these tows.
The Rodrigues said car owners should keep an eye out for signs to avoid being towed.
Despite the lawsuits, the Rodrigues believe they are doing a good job serving the people they work for.
“My wife and I work very hard at this,” Tom Rodrigue said. “We’re not getting rich.”