MODZELEWSKI'S TOWING & RECOVERY, INC. v. COMMISSIONER OF MOTOR VEHICLES, SC 19453

RAYMOND’S AUTO REPAIR, LLC v. COMMISSIONER OF MOTOR VEHICLES, SC 19454

Judicial District of New Britain

 

      Motor Vehicles; Federal Preemption; Whether State Preempted from Regulating Rates Charged for “Pre-Towing” and “Post-Towing” Services Performed in Connection with Nonconsensual Towing of Vehicles.  The plaintiffs are towing companies that were called by Connecticut State Police to accident scenes to tow away damaged vehicles without the consent of the vehicles’ owners.  At one scene, a plaintiff used a rotator truck to pick up a boat and put it back on its trailer before lifting the boat and trailer onto a flatbed truck for transportation to its storage facility.  At the other scene, a plaintiff used a rotator truck to pull a car up an embankment and then onto a truck for transportation.  Complaints were made to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that the plaintiffs’ charges for their services violated DMV regulations establishing the maximum allowable rates for the nonconsensual towing and transporting of motor vehicles.  A DMV hearing officer found that the plaintiffs had overcharged and ordered them to pay the complainants restitution.  The plaintiffs challenged the DMV decisions with administrative appeals, and the trial court sustained their appeals.  The court noted that, while federal law sometimes preempts state law in the area of intrastate commerce, 49 U. S. C. § 14501 (c) (2) (C) gives Connecticut the authority to regulate “the price of for-hire motor vehicle transportation by a tow truck, if such transportation is performed without the prior consent or authorization of the owner or operator of the motor vehicle.”  The court ruled, however, that federal law did not give Connecticut and DMV the authority to regulate prices for “pre-towing” and “post-towing” services and accordingly that the plaintiffs were wrongly ordered to refund their supposed overcharges for those services.  The court ruled that “transportation by tow truck” under § 14501 (c) (2) (C) could not be construed to include pre-towing recovery of a vehicle—the operation that the court characterized as necessary to return a vehicle to a position where nonconsensual towing or transporting can be initiated—or post-towing storage of a vehicle.  The court accordingly ordered that Modzelewski’s Towing and Recovery did not have to refund any of its charges associated with the pre-towing recovery of the boat and trailer, which involved the use of a rotator truck and a “major incident response truck,” or with its post-towing storage.  In sustaining Raymond’s Auto Repair’s appeal, the court ruled that it had wrongly been ordered to rebate charges for its pre-tow recovery involving the use of a rotator truck.  These are DMV’s appeals from the judgments sustaining the administrative appeals.  DMV argues that the trial court wrongly determined that the plaintiffs’ use of rotator trucks to recover damaged vehicles did not constitute the use of a “tow truck” under 49 U.S.C. § 14501 (c) (2) (C) such that their use was not subject to state price regulation.  The agency also challenges the court’s finding that the state cannot regulate pre-tow recovery operations, arguing that recovery operations are “related to” the movement of a vehicle by tow truck such that the state is not preempted from regulating recovery pricing.  Finally, DMV contends that the trial court wrongly ruled that the state is preempted from regulating fees charged for the storage of vehicles after they have been towed.