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AG Ferguson announces latest action in statewide initiative to reform towing industry and protect active duty service members’ rights

Clark County towing company must repay three service members for illegally selling their cars at auction

VANCOUVER — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today a court order will require Chuck’s Towing, a Clark County towing company, to pay three service members for illegally selling their cars at auction. The order also requires it to implement specific policies so it will not harm service members in the future.

The case is part of Ferguson’s ongoing Military & Veterans Initiative to stand up for Washington’s active-duty service members and veterans. It involves engaging and educating service members and veterans about their rights and the resources available to them, vigorously enforcing the legal protections within the Attorney General’s authority and promoting and facilitating access to civil legal services.Military and Veterans Initiative Logo

Through the Initiative, Ferguson is working to reform Washington’s towing industry to ensure that tow companies comply with legal protections for active duty military.

The three service members bring the total to more than three dozen individuals who have received restitution through Ferguson’s legal enforcements against Washington state towing companies.

“We’re working to reform the towing industry so that it follows our laws protecting active duty service members from having their vehicles unlawfully sold at auction,” Ferguson said. “Lawsuits are not my goal, but we will reform this industry one enforcement action at a time, if necessary. My goal is to ensure that service members’ rights are protected.”

Military service is often associated with difficulties, including long periods away from family and friends, and frequent moves to new duty stations. Consequently, Washington service members who go on active duty enjoy important legal protections.

The Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA) requires companies to obtain a court order before selling vehicles owned by active-duty service members at auction. Ferguson asserts the company committed an unfair business practice and also violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act (CPA) by failing to have policies and procedures in place to comply with the SCRA.

The Department of Defense provides an active-duty service member database that companies can use to verify military status. This search, available for free to a business that registers on the SCRA website, requires either a date of birth or a Social Security number to verify a person’s military status.

Case background

In February 2020, a woman serving in the U.S. Coast Guard made a complaint to the Attorney General’s Office regarding her car being sold at auction while she was stationed in Oregon. She specifically cited the similarity between her case and a previous case in Tacoma involving a company named Burns Towing.

Chuck’s Towing, based in Washougal, had legally towed her car after receiving reports of it being abandoned. However, after towing the car, the company then sold it at auction without first determining whether a service member owned the car, which would have forced the company to obtain a court order before selling it. Further, the service member was still making payments on the car through USAA, a bank that mainly works with members of the military or their families.

After receiving notification from the Attorney General’s Office, Chuck’s Towing and its owners, Richard Irwin and Orvilla Wedin, were cooperative with an investigation. In addition to the member of the Coast Guard, Chuck’s Towing had also auctioned off two other cars, but they were totaled or otherwise inoperable.

Once signed by the judge, the court order will require Chuck’s Towing to pay a total of $13,087 to compensate the three servicemembers for illegally auctioning their cars. The woman serving in the Coast Guard will receive $12,500 for the value of her car and to compensate for the time she no longer had access to it. Two other servicemembers will receive $437 and $150.

In addition, Chuck’s Towing will pay the Attorney General’s Office $4,000 to fund future investigations and litigation of SCRA actions. The legally binding agreement requires Chuck’s Towing to comply with SCRA in all future actions with vehicles it tows.

Assistant Attorney General John Nelson handled the case for the Attorney General’s Office.

Attorney General’s initiative to reform towing industry to protect the rights of active duty military

  • In May 2020, a Pierce County judge ruled a Tacoma-based towing company, Burns Towing, illegally auctioned off vehicles owned by active-duty military service members. After filing the lawsuit in 2018, the Attorney General’s Office investigated whether Burns Towing unlawfully sold other active-duty service members’ vehicles at auction without first obtaining a court order. The Attorney General’s Office discovered evidence that Burns Towing sold as many as 35 service members’ vehicles while they were on active duty and all received restitution, totaling $15,387.

 

  • In December 2021, a similar court order required a Kitsap County towing company to pay a former Navy sailor for illegally selling his car at auction while he was on active duty. The order also required it to implement specific policies so it would not harm service members in the future. The court order returned money from the sale of the car at the auction as well as an additional $2,000 to compensate him for a year when he did not have a vehicle.

 

  • In September 2021, Ferguson sent a letter to every licensed tow truck operator in the state emphasizing their legal obligations to service members and providing resources to ensure their companies comply. The letter went to more than 400 tow truck operators.

Prior legal work for service members on SCRA cases

In 2014, Attorney General Ferguson worked with Gov. Jay Inslee and Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, to pass bipartisan legislation giving the Attorney General’s Office authority to enforce the SCRA.

In July 2019, a property management company signed a legally binding agreement with the Attorney General’s Office in Thurston County Superior Court for violations to the SCRA and the CPA.

In that case, a service member terminated his apartment lease with the company when he received military orders. The management company held on to deposits the soldier had made and made him pay what amounted to an additional month of rent to move out. The soldier then made a complaint to the Attorney General’s Office.

The property management company paid $1,010 to the service member and an additional $40,000 to the Attorney General’s Office to fund future enforcement of SCRA and CPA claims. It also agreed to mandate specific SCRA and CPA training for its managers and staff.

In April 2017, a Portland, Ore.-based property management company paid $16,000 following an Attorney General’s Office investigation into its practice of requiring active-duty service members to sign an illegal “military addendum” to their leases. These contracts required service members to forfeit rent concessions if they had to terminate their leases early as a result of change of station or deployment.

The company provided rent concessions, such as reductions to first month’s rent or a gift card. When the service member had to terminate the lease due to new military orders, CTL Management took back the full amount of the rent concession as part of the final lease accounting by reducing deposit refunds or even requesting the service member repay the total.

Attorney General’s Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance

The Attorney General’s Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance (OMVLA) was created by Attorney General request legislation in the 2017 session to promote and facilitate access to civil legal services for Washington’s current and former military service members. OMVLA is authorized to recruit and train volunteer attorneys, maintain a registry of available services and volunteers, assess requests for legal assistance and refer such requests to registered volunteer attorneys and legal aid providers.

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Washington’s Attorney General serves the people and the state of Washington. As the state’s largest law firm, the Attorney General’s Office provides legal representation to every state agency, board, and commission in Washington. Additionally, the Office serves the people directly by enforcing consumer protection, civil rights, and environmental protection laws. The Office also prosecutes elder abuse, Medicaid fraud, and handles sexually violent predator cases in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.

Media Contact:

Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.aho@atg.wa.gov

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