Towed car lawsuit crashes into emergency exception

A driver who wheeled into an empty parking lot on a Saturday afternoon in Bloomington only to return an hour later and find his ride had been towed won the sympathy of the Indiana Court of Appeals, but his argument that his car was taken in violation of state statutes failed to gain any traction.

Daniel Frohman, represented by attorney Thomas Frohman, filed a complaint for conversion. He argued the lot’s owner, Jeanne Walters Real Estate LLC, or JW Realty, and the towing company Speedy Wrecker Service LLC disregarded Indiana code §§ 9-22-1-15 and 9-22-1-16 when they towed his vehicle without waiting 24 hours.

He sought treble damages, costs and attorney fees along with asking for punitive damages in order to deter the lot owner and the towing service from, what he called, their unlawful behavior of taking cars without 24-hour notice.

After a hearing to consider the motion and cross-motion for summary judgment, the Monroe Circuit Court found in favor of Frohman. It ruled the wrecker service and lot owner “ignored all parts of the abandoned-vehicle statutes except those that fit best with [Speedy Wrecker’s] business interest and was easier for [JW Realty] as well.”

The trial court granted Frohman’s motion on the issue of liability and set an evidentiary hearing on the remaining issues in his complaint.

However, the Court of Appeals applied the brakes and reversed the trial court’s decision in Speedy Wrecker Service LLC, and Jeanne Walters Real Estate, LLC v. Daniel H. Frohman, 19A-CT-2033.

The appellate panel did understand Frohman’s parking plight, but it noted his interpretation of state statute was flawed.

“Is it frustrating to see an empty parking lot in a convenient location but be forced to find a different spot because it is permit only? Of course,” Judge Margret Robb wrote for the court. “Is it fair to expect to park for free in a parking lot for which others have paid for a permit because you intend to park for only a short time or because it appears plenty of parking spots are available? Of course not.”

The Court of Appeals pointed out that while Indiana statutes do require a 24-hour waiting period before removing a vehicle believed to be abandoned from private property, there is an exception for emergencies.

Before the trial court, Frohman asserted the word “emergency” should be given its plain and ordinary meaning. However, the Court of Appeals noted a plain and ordinary meaning is used only when the Legislature has not defined the word or phrase.

Here, the statute itself defined “emergency situation.” According to I.C. 9-22-1-16(b), a vehicle is allowed to be removed immediately when “the presence of the vehicle believed to be abandoned interferes physically with the conduct or normal business operations of the person who owns or control the private property … .”

The Court of Appeals noted the normal business operations of JW Realty included operating a parking lot for which the company sold permits and received a monthly fee. Frohman was thus physically interfering with those normal business operations by using the parking lot without having purchased a permit.

“The trial court found the Appellants ‘have interpreted the statute in such a manner as to effectively render § 9-22-1-15 and § 9-22-1-16 meaningless.’ But Frohman and the trial court have interpreted those statutes to render the exception meaningless,” Robb wrote. “The exception protects normal business operations on private property. If the owner or operator of a for-pay parting lot cannot invoke the emergency exception when an unauthorized car parks in the lot, then essentially, there is no such business as a for-pay parking lot.

“Under Frohman’s interpretation of the statutes, anyone could park in the parking lot with impunity as long as they moved their car within twenty-four hours,” Robb concluded, “and there would be no incentive to purchase a permit and thus no business for JW Realty to operate.”

The case was remanded.

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