Are you looking to sue a towing company in a California small claims court?
In this article, learn about:
- Common types of small claims lawsuits against towing companies
- What to do before suing a towing company in small claims.
- The maximum amount you can sue a tow company for in small claims court.
- How much it costs to sue a tow company in small claims.
- How to file a small claims lawsuit against a towing company.
- What to expect during a small claims hearing.
- Mediation as an option of resolving your dispute against a towing company.
- Fun fact, lawyers are not allowed to represent you or the towing company in small claims! This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.
Looking for help with filing, serving, and preparing for the small claims hearing against a towing company? Learn more.
Common types of small claims lawsuits against towing companies
We often receive the question, can I sue a towing company in California small claims? The answer is yes as long as the dispute is for $10,000 or less (more on this below). Disputes with towing companies are very common in small claims court.
Here are some examples of small claims lawsuits against towing companies:
The towing company damaged your car
- If the towing company damaged your car while towing it, you can sue in small claims court if they refuse to pay for the damages. Make sure you have an invoice or an estimate for how much it will cost to fix your car!
The towing company won't return your car
- If a towing company is holding your car hostage, you can sue the towing company in small claims.
The towing company illegally towed your car
- If a towing company wrongfully towed your car, you can sue the towing company in small claims.
The towing company damaged your property
- For example, if a towing company damaged your property while towing a vehicle, you can sue the towing company in small claims court if they refuse to pay for the damages.
The towing company won't return property left in the car
- For example, if you left your computer in the car that was towed and the tow company won't let you take it out of the car, you can sue the towing company in small claims.
You can also consider suing a property owner in small claims if they illegally or wrongfully had your car towed.
- For example, if an apartment complex or HOA did not provide a sign with the towing company information, then you can sue them in small claims court.
What to do before suing a towing company in small claims
Reach Out to the Towing Company Informally
The first thing to do when a problem arises is to communicate with the towing company as many disputes are often resolved out of court.
If the towing company does not agree to return your car or pay for your car damages out of court, then it might be time to escalate the situation.
Save All Evidence
You want to make sure to save all evidence related to your interactions with the towing company. For example, you want to make sure to save:
- Any pictures or videos of where you parked your car, what your car looked like before it was towed, etc.
- A picture of the towing company sign where you parked your car.
- Any invoices, receipts, and written authorizations you received from the towing company.
- Any receipts, invoices, estimates to repair your car.
- Written conversations you have had with the towing company employees (text messages, emails, etc) or anyone else with information on your towed car.
Send a Demand Letter
A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could write to the towing company to request that they return your car or pay for damages to your car.
If you eventually decide to sue in California small claims court, you are required to first request your money or property back before you can file the lawsuit. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is suggested you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter.
It is very common to request reimbursement via text message or by phone but you may have a higher chance of receiving payment if you do it in the form of a letter. Letters are oftentimes taken more seriously than demands for payment via text message or by phone. You can also save any responses you receive from the towing company and include it in your evidence for the small claims hearing.
If you are also planning on suing a property owner for illegally towing your car, make sure to also demand payment from them before suing in small claims!
What to include in the demand letter?
Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to the towing company? Here are a few suggestions:
- How much money you are owed.
- Why you are owed money.
- Your contact information.
- Where to send payment.
- Option to mediate your dispute (there are many organizations in California that provide free or low-cost mediation and most courts also have free mediation available but many times you have to file a lawsuit in order to obtain access). More on mediation below.
- Give the towing company a few days to respond (usually about 7 to 14 days).
- Let them know that if they don't respond, you intend to sue because you didn't feel like they left you with an alternative.
Contact a Lawyer
If you think your case against a towing company may be worth more than $10,000, you may want to reach out to a lawyer in your area to see how much they think your lawsuit is worth. Many lawyers provide free consultations to determine if they can take your lawsuit.
Don't be discouraged if no lawyers are returning your calls. Why? Your case may not be lucrative enough for a lawyer. Usually, when a lawsuit is worth $10,000 or less, most lawyers don't find it worth their time. This is one of the reasons why small claims court was created! It is meant to work for people without lawyers.
The maximum amount you can sue a towing company for in small claims court is $10,00
If a towing company owes you $10,000 or less, then you can sue in a California small claims court. If you are owed more than $10,000, you can still sue in small claims, but you agree to waive any additional amount you are owed.
For example, if a towing company caused you $11,000 damages to your car, by suing in small claims you are agreeing to waive $1,000. If you win, you will win a maximum of $10,000.
Why would someone agree to waive any amount over $10,000 that they are owed:
- Suing in regular court is more expensive, time-consuming, and complicated.
- You cannot hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court making it cheaper.
- Hearings in small claims court are scheduled 30-75 days after the lawsuit is filed.
How much does it costs to sue a towing company in small claims?
- It costs between $30-$75 to file a small claims lawsuit against a towing company.
- Once the lawsuit is filed, the towing company has to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them. This is called serving. You can serve for free if you have a friend or family member deliver the lawsuit to the towing company or you can pay between $40-$75 to have the small claims lawsuit professionally served.
- If you are on California public benefits like Medi-cal, Food Stamps, SSI, you pay $0 in court fees and serving cost
How to file a small claims lawsuit against a towing company
Step 1: Identify the legal name for the towing company, their address, and their "agent of service of process."
In order to sue in California small claims, you need to be able to correctly name the person or business you are suing. You also need to list an address for them on the lawsuit and later on, you will need to be able to serve them.
- Look for the towing company sign. At the location where you parked your car, there should be a sign that stated the towing company's name, phone number, and address. Take a picture or write down the information.
- Fictitious Business Names. Many towing companies use a name other than their legal name to do business. They do this for marketing purposes usually because their legal name is too long. A name other than a legal name is called a fictitious business name. Each county has a database of fictitious business names where you can search for the real legal entity name. In this article, we cover this process in detail.
- Business License Search. If you have the address for the towing company, you can search for their business license. Each city has a database of business licenses. Call the business license department for the city where the towing company has an office or their tow yard.
- Search on the California Secretary of State's website. The towing company may be registered as a corporation or LLC. You will need to identify the name of the corporation or LLC. In this article, we cover this process in detail. It is important to identify who the agent for service of process (someone selected by the corporation or LLC to receive legal documents on its behalf) as this is the person who will be served.
- Determine if you should also include the owner of the property where your car was towed. Many times, the owner of a property can also be held responsible for damages to you if your car was not properly towed. To find out who owns a property, call the County Tax Assessor and ask who owns the property. In California, each county tax assessor has the information on who owns a property. They may also be able to give you a current address for them as you will need this address to find where to serve the property owner.
- DMV licensed tow truck search. Using the California DMV licensed tow vehicle database, you can search for the real business name with either the issued CA number that must be clearly visible on the truck, the DBA, or the zip code where the company is located.
- Company BBB page can include licensing information or alternate business names under the Business details section.
Step 2: Complete "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)
- This form starts the California Small Claims Court lawsuit process. Download here.
- It is also known as the "complaint" or "claim."
Step 3: File "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court"
Each California Small Claims Court has a different procedure for filing. You have to check with your local small claims court whether they allow filing in-person, by mail, online, or by fax. Or we can file your case for you!
Step 4: Serve the towing company
If the towing company is owed by an individual (not registered as a corporation or LLC)
Once you file your California small claims court lawsuit, the next step is to notify the towing company that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" (also known as "service"). You must serve the towing company at least 15-20 days before the small claims court hearing (sometimes you are required to serve at least 30 days before the hearing). There are several ways you can serve the towing company including by having a friend serve, hiring a process server, or hiring the sheriff. You cannot serve your own lawsuit.
If the towing company is a corporation or LLC
Remember, you will be serving the towing company's "agent for service of process" as listed on the California Secretary of State's website. Learn more here.
The Small Claims Court Hearing
Once you file your small claims lawsuit, you will get a hearing date scheduled anywhere between 30-70 days later. During this time, the towing company may call you to try and settle the case. If you come to an agreement, you can close your small claims lawsuit.
To prepare for your small claims court hearing:
- Research the law. Remember, in small claims you don't need to necessarily cite a specific law (unless you are basing your legal theories on a very unknown subject area relating to vehicle towing), you just need to be able to prove that you are "right" and the towing company is "wrong." Sometimes this can be as simple as proving that the towing company caused damage to property that belongs to you.
- Where to research the law? Lawsuits against towing companies are very common so thankfully there are a lot of free resources. Here are some resources for California towing laws: the California Courts website on vehicle towing and the California Vehicle Code, If you are unsure about what laws relate to your lawsuit, consult an attorney or conduct your own research about the law (a quick Google search goes a long way).
- Prepare your evidence. Pictures, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you should win. Remember, it is not good to show up to court without any documents or receipts. The judge wants to be able to base their decision on the evidence you bring to court showing exactly how much you are owed and why you are owed money.
- Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing the towing company and how you calculated the amount you are owed. You want to make sure you start with a broad statement like this: "Your honor, I am suing the towing company in small claims court today because they illegally towed my car and damaged my car in the process. The damages to my car are $3,000 and I had to rent another car for $2,000. Then go into the details.
- Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, your filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for these costs.
- Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, one for the towing company representative).
Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?
- Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or the towing company at the initial hearing. If the towing company loses the small claims lawsuit and appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.
Mediation as an option of resolving your dispute
What is mediation?
Mediation is a meeting between you, the towing company, and a neutral 3rd party called the mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you and the towing company come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit.
How can I try to mediate the dispute with the towing company?
In California, there are many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation. Run a google search for "mediation near me" and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. Many times they are run by volunteer mediators.
Many California small claims courts also have free mediation available. Each county runs their small claims mediation a bit differently so reach out to us for more information on your court. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.