The World of Towing in Hawaii

Tow This: It’s a necessary part of city life, but it’s also one of the most hated. A look into the rough-and-tumble world of towing.

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Peter Robinson has been towing cars for Towagon Service for more than 10 years.

It’s one of life’s worst little moments: returning to your parking spot and finding only an empty space.

The towing business might be a necessary one—without it, our roads and parking lots would be clogged with ne’er-do-wells and broken-down heaps—but it’s also one of the most hated industries around, and no wonder. What other private entity can, without notice, seize a piece of your personal property worth tens of thousands of dollars, haul it miles away and then hold it for ransom? It’s a galling experience in the best of circumstances, but there are always shady tow operations that find a way to pile insult onto injury.

We decided to take a closer look at how the towing industry works, and what you need to know in the event that you get towed.

As you might expect, towing incidents tend to spark a lot of complaints. Both the Hawaii state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) and the Better Business Bureau regularly receive reports of overcharging, damaged vehicles, rude behavior on the part of tow-truck operators and unwarranted tows.

The resolution rate of towing companies tends to be low, as well: The Better Business Bureau says that in the past year, 14 percent of the complaints on which it followed up were satisfactorily resolved by the companies involved.

In some instances, the complaints even end up in the court system. In 2009, the DCCA successfully sued two local tow companies on a list of charges including mileage padding, illegal overtime charges, failure to provide proper receipts and accepting only cash payments.

It’s important to note that these kinds of complaints aren’t universal. Peruse the Better Business Bureau’s listings for local tow companies, and it becomes clear that there are many above-board towers out there, with zero registered complaints and A ratings from the BBB. It’s a select few companies that rack up the offenses.

The latest legal kerfuffle over towing involves the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor parking lot. A group of local attorneys is pursuing a class-action lawsuit against Diamond Parking, Gino’s Powerlift Towing and the state of Hawaii, among others, alleging that more than 1,400 people whose vehicles had been towed from the lot didn’t receive the due process to which they were entitled, including the opportunity to contest the validity of the tows.

The problem started in 2008, attorney Richard Gronna says, when Diamond Parking took over the management of the harbor parking lot. The lot has long been tight on parking, thanks to the demand created by nearby popular surf spot Rockpiles, as well as the Yacht Club and the hundreds of boats docked at the harbor, but under Diamond Parking, the number of tows jumped dramatically—from two or three a day to more than a dozen.

“These towing companies came in and started wielding these draconian policies. In our review of the cases, it was evident that they were abusing the system and taking advantage of people,” Gronna says.” They weren’t providing any opportunity for a hearing after you got towed, to contest whether it was proper or not.”

Nathan Contreras, a project manager with Swinerton Builders and frequent visitor to the boat harbor, isn’t a party to the suit, but says he’s been nailed repeatedly by overly aggressive towers at the harbor parking lot. “I’ve gotten towed from there four or five times in the past few years. The Gino’s guys live down there. I see three or four tow trucks in that tiny area constantly.”

The most recent incident, he says, was in January, during Pro Bowl weekend, when he visited a friend who has  a boat at the harbor. Contreras says he dropped $10 into the parking dropbox, which, at the lot’s rate of a dollar an hour, should have covered him through midnight. Just a couple of hours later, though, he saw his Toyota FJ Cruiser being hooked up by a Gino’s driver. “I ran out there and he immediately started arguing with me. I said, Hey, I kinda feel like I’m getting screwed here. You need to put my car down, and we need to talk about this.” The tow-truck driver refused and would have driven off, but Contreras and a friend stood in front of the truck to block it until the police arrived. In the end, Contreras says, he was forced to pay the driver $20 in cash to get his car back.

“I’m at the point now where I would rather take a cab down there than risk my car. I can go anywhere else in Waikiki and not worry, but as soon as I get into the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, forget about it.”

As we went to press, the class-action lawsuit was still awaiting certification, but it’s already had an impact: the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has begun offering hearings to vehicle owners who have been towed. Chris Dias, one of the lawyers pursuing the lawsuit, says, “We’ve attended a couple of them, but it remains to be seen whether they satisfy the constitutional requirement. It has to have both form and substance; it can’t just be a rubber stamp.”

Diamond Parking and Gino’s Powerlift Towing could not be reached for comment.

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,June

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