Fenn Church had to pay nearly $17,500 to get two of his trucks returned by what he and other trucking companies say is a predatory towing company in Memphis, Tennessee.
Church is president and CEO of Birmingham, Alabama -based Church Transportation. Two of his trucks were booted and towed just days apart in October by Memphis-based A1’s Hauling and Towing. The bill to get one truck back was $12,950, the other $4,550.
A1’s has told local media that they’re just following the law, saying truckers who have refused to pay for parking on private lots are trespassing. But Church and others describe a situation where tow trucks appear to be waiting to pounce on a truck driver who doesn’t immediately pay the truck parking fee via the QR code on posted signs.
According to Church and local media reports, A1's apparently is working with S-Line parking, which contracts with smaller fuel stops to provide security and collect truck parking fees.
Some of those fuel stops want out of those contracts, saying the aggressive and in some cases allegedly illegal actions of S-Line and A1’s are driving away business.
Once the truck is booted, “they give you like 30 minutes to pay a $273 boot fee that can only be paid in cash,” Church told HDT. “At 2 in the morning, what driver’s got that kind of cash on them? They call the wrecker out and back it in front of your truck at roughly $1,000 an hour, and the meter doesn’t stop until they have it back at their yard — and then storage fees start.”
One of his drivers locked herself in her truck to prevent A1’s Towing and Hauling from taking it, telling local TV news station WREG, “I swear on the Bible I have never in my life been through this.”
Church echoed his driver when he told HDT that in his 23 years, “I’ve never run into something like this.”
After A1's tactics generated numerous complaints to the local permit office that regulates towing companies, the Memphis Transportation Commission held several hearings. On Nov. 29 the commission suspended A1’s towing permit for 30 days, so it cannot boot or tow vehicles during that time, a city official told HDT.
It’s a pretty egregious example of predatory towing, which the American Transportation Research Institute has been researching. ATRI released its report, Causes and Countermeasures of Predatory Towing, on the same day A1’s permit was suspended.
A1’s Towing and Hauling’s booting and towing permits have been suspended by the City of Memphis for 30 days.https://t.co/GDTKSu3ftZ— WREG News Channel 3 (@3onyourside) November 29, 2023
What is Predatory Towing and Why is it a Problem for Trucking Companies?
ATRI, which is the research arm of the American Trucking Associations, defines predatory towing as generally “any incident in which a towing and recovery company egregiously overcharges, illegally seizes assets, damages assets by use of improper equipment, or illegitimately withholds release of a truck, trailer, and/or cargo.”
The insititute found that 30% percent of invoices included excessive rates or unwarranted additional charges, based on an independent analysis of motor carriers’ complete records of original towing invoices from 2021, 2022 and 2023.
The report cites a series of incidents in the past few years that garnered media coverage:
- In 2020 a motor carrier received a $202,000 invoice in Virginia for recovering and towing a truck involved in a single-vehicle incident.
- In 2023, a $6,000 bill for a 16-mile tow went viral as an instance of an excessive rate for minor service.
- In Chicago, unsolicited and illegal tows have been on the rise over the past five years.
Some of the challenges include inconsistent invoice itemization practices in the towing and recovery industry and a patchwork of local and state towing regulations. Groups in multiple states have been pushing for more regulation over the towing and recovery industry.
A truck driver who came to Memphis to recover a tractor-trailer stolen from Chicago stayed inside a big rig for over 33 hours to avoid being towed by A1’s Towing and Hauling.https://t.co/9Y4zYphjcM— WREG News Channel 3 (@3onyourside) November 16, 2023
Types of Predatory Towing
ATRI found that predatory billing was the most common form of predatory towing, with excessive rates experienced by 83% of motor carriers and unwarranted extra charges experienced by 82%. Other common types of predatory towing include improper vehicle seizure, vehicle access or release issues, and withheld cargo.
While predatory towing practices can happen during consensual towing, it’s more common in nonconsensual towing. But making things more complicated, exact definitions of what's consensual or not vary by state. As part of the research, ATRI compiled a compendium of state towing regulations.
ATRI outlines two forms of nonconsensual towing: police-initiated crash/disabled vehicle towing and Impound towing.
Police-initiated crash/disabled vehicle towing can happen when a truck has been involved in a crash or is disabled and interfering with traffic flow or public safety, and police take control of the scene and call towing services for the vehicle. However, ATRI says, motor carriers are rarely able to choose which towing and recovery company to use in these situations. They can’t compare rates, investigate crash sites, or approve the equipment and techniques deployed in a recovery.
Motor carriers responding to the ATRI survey were able to use a towing company of their choice in only a median of 10% of towaway crashes. More than a third said they never have the opportunity to choose the company after an accident.
Most police-initiated tows use a rotation list of towing companies, but ATRI found that in some jurisdictions, there is no clear or consistent standard for how companies get on those lists.
And according to reports in Chicago, some towing and recovery companies don’t even wait for the police, waiting near low-clearance underpasses for a truck that get wedged underneath.
As NBC5 Chicago reported last year, “out of nowhere, and called by no one, the truck drivers say tow trucks appear, unsolicited and illegally, offering claims of relief in an anxiety-filled moment. The drivers tell NBC 5 Responds that relief came with a high price, one they didn’t agree to, totaling tens of thousands of dollars for a tow that they’re told at first would cost hundreds.”
The towing companies then hold the truck and its cargo hostage, demanding $10,000, $15,000, even $40,000, according to the report.
Impound towing is what’s been happening in Memphis to Church and others: When an illegally parked or unauthorized vehicle is removed from privately or publicly owned property without the prior consent or authorization of the vehicle owner.
8 Common Predatory Towing Practices
ATRI’s report identified eight common predatory towing practices as reported by the motor carriers and owner-operators in its study:
1. Excessive hourly or per-pound rates (83%)
Excessive rates for equipment and labor were ranked as the most encountered and negatively impactful form of predatory towing in ATRI’s research.
Church reported that he was billed roughly $1,000 an hour from the time the tow truck arrived to when it arrived at the yard. ATRI’s research found that the median rate for a basic heavy-duty tow (not involving a crash) was $291 per hour, with rates above $436.50 deemed excessive. Heavy-duty wreckers towing from crash sites had a median of $582 per hour, with rates over $873 deemed excessive.
ATRI found a median labor cost of $105 per person per hour, with rates above $157.50 considered excessive.
2. Unwarranted additional equipment or labor charges (82%)
Charges for unwarranted equipment or labor can be caused when too much equipment is sent to a crash site, whether on purpose or because of inaccurate information from first responders. Another common additional charge is when a towing company bills more hours for equipment or labor than what was actually worked.
3. Excessive daily storage rate (78%)
Excessive storage charges, typically prorated on a daily basis, can accumulate rapidly if an invoice is contested.
4. Vehicle release delays or access issues (72%)
These are typically due to delays in payment, which could be caused by contested predatory invoices or incomplete insurance coverage or procedural delays.
5. Cargo release delays (62%)
When motor carriers or insurers contest a potentially predatory incident, many towing and recovery companies hold equipment and cargo until payment is finalized, which also results in late cargo deliveries, affecting the supply chain.
In another towing incident in Memphis regarding A1’s, local media reported that the truck was hauling a refrigerated trailer loaded with pharmaceuticals.
“Now we’re facing a penalty from this customer saying they’re going to file a $70,000 claim against our company because we can’t deliver the product on time like we said we would,” Andrew Adams, the owner of Little Rock, Arkansas-based BigTrux Transportation, told WREG News 3.
Church said one of his trucks that was booted and towed was delivering a load of school furniture to an elementary school in the Memphis outskirts.
Motor carriers say towing and recovery companies should release the cargo immediately, even if the trucking company is contesting an invoice. While ATRI found that many towing and recovery companies agree with that, others hold cargo hostage and use it as a bargaining tool when invoices are contested. Currently only eight states have legislation that expressly outlaws the holding of cargo. Twenty states have laws mandating that towing companies allow access to any personal items or simply the “contents” of any vehicle. Whether “contents” includes cargo can be vague, according to ATRI.
6. Vehicle seizure without cause (56%)
Over half of ATRI’s respondents reported incidents where a truck was seized without proper cause.
This may occur when a tow operator arrives at the scene of a crash or mechanical breakdown unsolicited — without being called by either law enforcement or the motor carrier.
It may also occur when a tow operator impounds a truck that was parked on private property without the authorization of the property owner, as trucking companies allege is the case in Memphis with A1's and S-Line.
7. Tow operators misreporting nonconsensual tows as consensual (54%)
The classification of consensual versus nonconsensual towing can affect how a tow is billed and whether the tow is subject to state or municipal regulations that may cover only nonconsensual tows. By reporting a tow as consensual rather than nonconsensual, or by pressuring a truck driver to sign a consent form, a towing company may be trying to avoid regulations or contestation of the invoice.
8. Damage due to improver towing equipment (59%)
While some recovery of trucks at crashes may not be possible without avoiding some additional damages, ATRI says, the use of improper towing equipment or recovery techniques can cause unnecessary damage to tractors, trailers, or cargo.
What Am I Paying For?
ATRI found that another factor in predatory towing is the fact that billing practices in the industry vary widely.
One in four crash-related invoices analyzed by ATRI were not itemized. This creates additional conflict between the trucking and towing industries because un-itemized invoices can provide cover for inflated pricing.
Fenn Church told HDT that A1’s wouldn’t even send him an invoice until after he paid the amount they told him over the phone.
A Little Rock trucking company is the latest to have issues with A1’s Towing and Hauling as many truckers claim their trucks are being illegally towed and booted.— WREG News Channel 3 (@3onyourside) November 21, 2023
“It needs to be put to a stop,” the owner said.https://t.co/QY62OvYows
What Can Trucking Companies Do About Predatory Towing?
As part of its report, ATRI interviewed transportation attorneys for some tips:
- Contact a local trucking association to find a preferred towing company that you can instruct law enforcement to call to an accident scene.
- Research the towing laws of states where your trucks regularly operate.
- Instruct drivers how to take photos and videos of the accident scene, including not only the truck’s position, but also the equipment and number of workers sent by the towing company and what they’re doing.
- Towing and recovery companies often ask drivers to sign documents at the scene; instruct your drivers not to sign such papers.
- When you get an invoice, look at it closely. Check administrative fees, fuel surcharges, and sales taxes, and the mileage from the crash scene to the tow yard. ATRI found the most common form of predatory billing was miscellaneous costs, with administrative fees twice as high as the median in 6.5% of invoices.
- Review and compare photos and videos taken by drivers with invoices to identify any excessive or double billing for tasks, manpower, and equipment.
And if you do find yourself in a predatory towing situation despite such precautions?
- First, the attorneys said, contact your insurer so it can negotiate with the towing company — or hire a law firm experienced in these issues to negotiate or send a demand letter.
- If negotiations are unsuccessful and you can’t afford to pay the invoice under protest, file a lawsuit to seek a temporary injunction or a replevin action where you can post a bond and regain possession of your vehicle to stop storage costs.
- Send a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request to Highway Patrol/State Police and State Department of Transportation asking for any records regarding the towing company’s membership on law enforcement’s rotation and any complaints filed against the towing company.
- As appropriate, file a complaint against the T&R company with Highway Patrol/State Police or the Attorney General for the state in question.
In the case of A1’s in Memphis, Church and other motor carriers and drivers complained to city officials responsible for licensing of towing companies, resulting in that 30-day suspension.
“You can’t avoid Memphis,” Church says. “We warned all of our drivers about it. I think some other trucklines and myself are going to file some sort of class action lawsuit. I don’t expect to ever see a dime out of these people, but they’re holding up interstate commerce and somebody’s got to put a stop to them.”