OOIDA steps up fight against inflated towing bills

By Mark Schremmer, staff writer

It seemed to be a fairly routine jackknife. Only one wrecker was required at the crash scene.

But the bill for tow and recovery tells a much different story.

The truck driver, an Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association member, was charged $29,250 by Rocky Mountain Towing after the evening accident, May 9, 2015, on Interstate 80 in Wyoming.

The bill didn't take into account the amount of labor or number of hours worked. Instead, Rocky Mountain Towing's charge was at a rate of 48 cents a pound with a minimum of 60,000 pounds. (The actual weight was roughly 45,000 pounds). That alone created a $28,800 bill. Storage at a rate of $75 per unit per day added another $450.

Often, this is the reality of nonconsensual tows.

After a wreck, truck drivers have little to no opportunity to shop for a towing company or to negotiate rates. Instead, the towing company is determined by a rotation list that is usually administered by a law enforcement agency. So the cost of service is out of the truck driver's hands.

Towing bills in the tens of thousands of dollars are frequent occurrences. OOIDA Director of State Legislative Affairs Mike Matousek said that while most towing companies are honest and provide fair rates, egregiously overcharged towing bills are way too prevalent.

"I come across a bad towing bill about every week," Matousek said. "It may be even more frequent than that."

The problem is that even with insurance, inflated bills will affect the truck driver. Some bills can be outrageous enough to bankrupt small trucking businesses.

"During a nonconsensual tow, there is usually no opportunity for motorists to negotiate services or compare prices among multiple towing operators," Matousek said. "Unfortunately, as it relates to trucking, truck drivers are routinely held responsible for towing bills that are blatantly inflated by tens of thousands of dollars, and there is often no effective or efficient recourse. The impact on small-business truckers can be financially devastating."

OOIDA, in turn, has made a point to get in the fight against inflated towing bills and to work with states to create better regulations and to remove corrupt towing companies from the rotation list.

The Association has recently filed complaints against the most blatant cases.

Last year an OOIDA member received a $53,000 towing bill in West Virginia.

The complaint questioned many of the charges billed by Hutch's Wrecker Service. Hutch's charged more than maximum permissible tariffs in several categories.

For instance, OOIDA's complaint claimed "the maximum rate for a service truck is $25 per hour. The defendant charged $200 per hour for a service truck for an overcharge of approximately $2,100."

According to the complaint, the maximum rate was exceeded numerous times. Some of the offenses include charging $90 per hour for two service trucks when the maximum rate is $25 per hour and $350 per hour for a light tower when the maximum rate is $300.

Hutch's has been involved in multiple OOIDA complaints.

"The invoice was largely permissible according to their approved rate tariffs in West Virginia," Matousek said. "They approved rates for reusable equipment. They charged $350 an hour for a portable light tower. That bill highlights why reform is needed in West Virginia. Some of the charges may have been allowed, but that doesn't mean they are reasonable charges."

A towing case last year in Deposit, N.Y., resulted in a $154,124 bill for an OOIDA member. The bill included a $92,650 charge for the "reefer trailer fee." The rate was $100 per hour for 926.5 hours, or approximately 38 days.

"Keep in mind that reefer trailer rental rates in the Deposit, N.Y., area are roughly $692 per week, $.06 per mile and $1.50 per refrigerated hour for the reefer unit," OOIDA wrote in a complaint to the New York Attorney General. "Assuming a seven-week rental with 100 miles driven and 926 refrigerated hours, the total rental cost is $5,550. Further, new high-end reefer trailers can be outright purchased for around $30,000."

Despite the arguments raised, the complaint was largely ignored.

However, some progress has been made.

A recent complaint in West Virginia against Anthony's Truck Repair led to a ruling for a $10,067 refund by the public service commission. Wyoming is in the process of implementing a law that could potentially allow fraudulent towing companies to be removed from the rotation list. Section 5514 of the FAST Act gives states the necessary authority to regulate all nonconsensual tows to protect motorists. In January, OOIDA filed comments with the Louisiana Public Service Commission in hopes of changing some of the state's nonconsensual towing regulations.

OOIDA plans to continue to make the fight against overcharged nonconsensual tows a priority throughout 2016.

"To be clear, OOIDA is not against towing operators making a living," Matousek said. "In fact, there are towing operators that are members of OOIDA. But we are against towing operators that inflate their invoices simply because they can due to inadequate state regulations or a lack of enforcement.

"I think there are some positive steps being made. You look at Wyoming, the FAST Act and the West Virginia case. We are bringing a lot of attention to this. We filed a couple of complaints in Florida. Progress is being made in Arkansas. There certainly are some states taking a good look at this issue. Overall, it's a drop in the bucket, but it is progress nonetheless." LL