Cover Story
Anatomy of a killer...tow bill
Be it breakdown or crash situation, a tow service on the scene can be a welcome sight. But that feeling of relief can turn ugly if you are one of the growing number of truckers hit with home mortgage-sized twoing bills of $30,000, $60,000 or even $82,000.

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

 

Kenneth Morgan noticed the truck’s tires had crept onto the shoulder during the predawn darkness hours that August morning.

Jerking the wheel back left, Morgan overcorrected, sending the truck careening into a ditch and slamming onto its side on the Interstate 40 median near Barstow, CA.

The crash caused Morgan head trauma. Charles Allison – the truck’s 74-year-old owner – had been napping in the sleeper. He was tossed around the sleeper like a rag doll – breaking his collar bone.

Within minutes, Allison, an OOIDA member from Sulphur Springs, TX, was strapped to a gurney and loaded onto an ambulance.

It was the last time Allison would see his red 2005 International 9400I.

Allison never saw a bill until his insurer shared the bad news: The towing company claimed it was owed $17,000 for uprighting the truck and trailer and off-loading the strawberries. Several equipment pieces had been billed for 10 hours, 12 hours, even 14 hours.

“I’ve had other towing charges I thought were sort of outrageous, but nothing like this one was,” Allison told Land Line. “It seemed excessive to me, I’ll tell you.”

Allison’s truck had been towed from the scene, stored and was racking up $50 per day in additional charges until the tow company got its money.

Every day, tow truck trade associations, insurance companies and other industry insiders see outrageous billing charges that often bankrupt small trucking businesses. Experts from all sides of the industry, including towing service providers, say the problem has grown more widespread and expensive the past few years.

OOIDA has recently worked with members who have bills ranging from $33,000 to $82,000, and who report that bills of $20,000 to $30,000 are becoming common. Insurance claims specialists who work with OOIDA say when greedy, rogue tow operators run billing clocks for multiple pieces of equipment – often for much longer than is necessary – the bills quickly get inflated.

Combined with the power to bill freely, those companies often have the right to hold onto commercial trucks until they’re paid – holding truckers’ livelihoods hostage in the process.

“Some of these companies have no mercy. They take advantage of people when they’re unprotected,” said Chuck Johnston of Commercial Truck Claims Management. “They are like bandits without guns.”

Allison has become all too familiar with the company that billed him for 14 hours of work and with a side of trucking he never believed he was vulnerable to.

“You’re just at the mercy of whoever does the work,” Allison said. “You have to call on somebody.”

Johnston describes it as costly lessons from the school of hard knocks. “Until it happens to you, you don’t know how to deal with it.”

Dissection of a high bill
Expensive tow bills can affect any driver, although owner-operators with their own authority and truck owners leased to motor carriers are particularly vulnerable.

Commercial Truck Claims Management’s George Odom said most expensive tow bills originate from on-road truck wreck scenes.

State troopers or police officers must have the wreck cleared to open the road for traffic and to help prevent additional wrecks. They often quickly place calls to tow and wrecker companies.

Emergency tows like Allison’s are considered “non-consensual.”

During the non-consensual tow, truckers have little say in what number of wreckers a tow service calls to the scene, and which pieces are used to hoist or pull trucks from a ditch or back upright.

Because many local governments have limits on tow rates, Johnston said the rate itself isn’t usually the culprit.

Instead, towing companies can stay within rate sheet limits but still bill truckers for tens of thousands of dollars by bringing multiple wreckers to a scene. Many tow companies begin charging the minute they receive a call for multiple tow trucks and don’t stop charging until after the equipment is back, cleaned, and put away. The unscrupulous companies can charge for several individual pieces of equipment on the trucks, whether the trucks or equipment are used for the entire time or not.

Allison was billed for 14 total hours, and the tow company billed several pieces of equipment for 10 to 12 hours.

Among the charges:

  • Wrecker: $310 hourly from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Second wrecker: $340 hourly for 10 hours.
  • Offload: $330 hourly for 12 hours.
  • Nearly $2,000 for four workers.

Allison’s $4,000 charge for off-loading was likely work that should have been finished within two to three hours, Johnston said. A Bobcat would have done the job, but the equipment used was much larger and more expensive.

“The wheels on the thing were 10 feet high,” he said.

One tow bill Johnston dealt with in August included 22 hours for documenting and photographing the wreck scene at $60 per hour, racking up $2,000 in addition to photo processing and document charges.

A different company charged for a consultant, and CTCM’s adjuster later discovered it was the tow company owner’s wife who’d wandered onto the scene out of curiosity.

Here’s the rub
At the root of the problem, experts say, is the ability for tow companies to take possession of commercial trucks until bills are paid.

The responsibility for tow bills is split among insurance carriers, cargo owners and truck owners, he said, and each party has insurance meant to cover its portion of the bill.

When tow bills exceed those insurance amounts, however, towing companies want to be paid for the total bill, regardless of who pays. Though cargo is often allowed to be off-loaded onto another trailer, towing companies usually tow the truck back to the company lot and begin charging storage fees.

To pay the $17,000 tow bill, Allison had to sell his truck directly from the towing company’s lot. His International, with only 140,000 miles on a rebuilt engine, fetched $5,400.

His four remaining trucks continue to haul produce, though the economy has pinched his bottom line and made deadhead trips to California necessary before return trips.

After receiving staggering towing bills, many truck owners assume there’s a government agency they can call to help them fight for their business.

But the federal government doesn’t regulate tow companies, and states don’t have any incentive to regulate them for interstate trucking because truckers who are victimized aren’t usually even from that state.

Truck owners may use a writ of replevin to assert that their property has been wrongly seized. A writ of replevin allows a property owner to post a bond on an item, while a court later decides if the property has been wrongfully seized.

The particular location of a truck wreck could mean long court waits, and truck owners would definitely be charged legal fees throughout the process, Johnston said.

Long-haul truckers aren’t likely to be hit or wrecked near home, making such a battle more expensive.

Some towing associations provide mediation and negotiation services that aim to strike a balance between getting tow providers what they’re rightfully owed and not gouging truck drivers.

During tight times, a missed payment of $2,000 or two could wipe out many small trucking businesses.

Also, insurance companies offer supplemental tow insurance to cover what the primary insurance doesn’t pay.

Still, Johnston said, tow bills of $50,000, $60,000 and $82,000 aren’t likely to be covered even by truck owners who purchase insurance aggressively.

“No one buys that much insurance,” he said.

Other than filing suit, truckers have few ways to fight unfair towing charges, Johnston said.

“Yeah, you can fight it,” he said. “But how much do you want to spend fighting it?”

The towers’ perspective
Tow company owners say the price-gouging actions of some towers overshadow good towing businesses, and tarnish the image of an industry that clears accident scenes and often saves lives in the process.

Chris Carlson, president and chief operating officer for California-based American Towing Alliance, said some tow companies take advantage of a lack of regulation over the industry, particularly as their total call volume has dropped with the economy in recent years.

“While the trucking industry has seen a decline in cargo, you’re also seeing a decline in towing,” Carlson said. “Larger fleets are parking their oldest trucks and are driving more reliable equipment, and breaking down less. These guys, towing operators, are hurting. That’s one of the reasons I think you’re seeing a rash of higher bills as of late.”  

Carlson said towing scandals and bills for car owners have generated a series of local ordinances and state laws in recent years, but said public concern hasn’t been high for truck owners.

“There’s been a lot of attention to private party impounds for small cars but not a lot given to trucking companies,” Carlson said.

OOIDA member Brian Raker runs a towing business in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Raker says the horror stories of extravagant tow bills overshadow a number of tow companies who run their businesses fairly.

Tow service providers have to be ready to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Raker said he’s missed many family moments while working his tow business.

“I like helping people,” Raker said. “One of the common misconceptions people have about towers is that we’re trying to scam the public. Or that we’re giving kickbacks to law enforcement to get the tow calls off the highway or the accidents. I’m not gonna say that doesn’t happen in the industry, but it’s not common and widespread like most folks would think.”

Tow insurance, equipment and other expenses have increased at the same rate as trucking expenses.

Raker said towing is such a niche-market business that big business attempts to establish national towing chains have failed. The combination of no federal regulation and little state regulation and a desire by elected officials and law enforcement to clear accident scenes faster has allowed some towers to inflate bills with few questions asked.

As a result, towing businesses that take advantage of stranded truckers and motorists have been able to thrive in certain regions and corners of the U.S.

“The way they stay in business is there is either a lack of competition that normally would weed out a bad actor, or the exact opposite extreme,” Raker said. “They’re in an area where there is almost no work and no competition because nobody else can afford to open up a competing, professionally run business.” LL

charlie_morasch@landlinemag.com

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