A former OU student settled with Curtis Auto Repair and Towing, he alleges overcharged him for a 2018 parking violation.
Trevor Rowe, a 2019 OU alumni, had finished eating lunch with his girlfriend last February when they left her apartment to find his car being hooked up to a Curtis Towing truck. Rowe picked up his car from the impound less than an hour later, paying about $128 in towing and “administrative fees.”
After Rowe arrived back home, he became suspicious of the charge and spent that weekend looking up Ohio towing laws.
“I don’t remember exactly what it was that spurred me to look it up,” Rowe said. “Probably just wanted that money back, to see if there was a way to get it.”
He found that Athens has a local ordinance that limits towing fees to $50. He also found a lawsuit that the city of Cleveland filed against the state of Ohio that resulted in a 2003 state law, which limited towing fees to a $90 maximum with a storage fee of $12 per day. After Cleveland won, the decision effectively declared towing regulation to be a matter of home-rule, a provision authorizing local governments to enforce laws specific to their areas as long as they do not conflict with statewide laws.
Rowe also found that a Franklin County judge ruled the “administrative fees” charged by some towing companies violated state law, though that ruling came about before the 2003 state towing regulations were repealed.
Rowe thought he had been overcharged. He took his research back to Bill Curtis, owner of Curtis Towing, the following week to try to get back the money he believed he was owed.
“I had a black bomber jacket, and I had rigged up my phone and it was hidden in the jacket,” Rowe said.
He said he showed the workers at Curtis Towing the city ordinance and court documents, but they did not take him seriously.
When Rowe requested the $78 from Curtis, or the amount he was charged over the $50 limit in Athens, Curtis told Rowe, “you’re going to need a lawyer, bud.”
Curtis was not available for comment at the time of publishing.
Rowe left Curtis Towing and went to seek help from the Center for Student Legal Services, or CSLS, that same day, showing the staff exactly what he had brought to Curtis.
After months of waiting for a separate case to wrap up, CSLS got in touch with Curtis to try to negotiate before any legal action was taken. The two men could not come to an agreement, and on March 4, 2019, Rowe filed a civil claim against Curtis Towing.
The claim alleged that, though similar state towing regulations have been passed since Rowe was towed, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio had not established the current regulations until four days after Rowe’s vehicle was towed.
Additionally, the Ohio Administrative Code, which currently limits towing fees for personal vehicles to a maximum of $129, had not gone into effect until more than three months after his vehicle was towed. The Athens city ordinance had been in effect at the time Rowe was towed, while state towing laws had not been, according to the claim.
While a hearing was scheduled, the two never actually went to court. Curtis called CSLS on May 1 to settle with Rowe, and later that day a check was sent for $188; the $78 Rowe had been asking for and $110 to cover his court fees.
“I feel like there has to be an element of pride in there, or stubbornness or something,” Rowe said. “The only thing that I can think of, the only reason to do that is that he was calling my bluff. He didn't think that I would actually file.”
Whether the charge made to Rowe was legal or not was never officially decided upon, because there was no judicial decision actually made.
“I can't say that those fees are illegal, because there was never a judgment, and I'm also not a lawyer,” Rowe said. “I received a settlement from Curtis. That’s a fact.”
When he was towed in February 2018, Rowe posted a survey to Facebook asking people who had been towed in Athens how much they were charged. While he did not specifically ask those who responded to differentiate between towing, administrative and impound fees, the average charge was about $150.
These kind of fees may not seem like much, but for students and low-income families, that money could be the only thing keeping them afloat, said Adam Boesinger, commissioner of off-campus affairs for Student Senate.
“It's not only students… But (that money) can be the difference between a family getting food on the table (or not),” Boesinger said. “In the grand scheme of things, it's not a lot of money, but it really does have a heavy impact.”
To help offset the cost, Ohio University students can apply for an emergency microgrant through the Division of Student Affairs, which typically awards emergency grants to students in emergency situations or who are going through one-time hardships.
Boesinger said he would like to propose a senate bill asking the city to ensure that towing companies in Athens are in compliance with state law. Towing services in Athens include Curtis Towing, Athens Towing and AutoTech Service Center,
Rowe’s advice for any student who finds themselves in similar situations is to seek the help of the CSLS.
“People forget that lawyers are also there for cases where someone wrongs you, not just when you're in trouble,” Rowe said. “I wouldn't have been able to navigate the court system and get this money back if I hadn't. So pay the 15 bucks, and there's not a bad chance that it'll pay off.”