The following is a cautionary tale about getting involved in litigation. It can end up costing the winner far more than a successful lawsuit generates in money damages.
Just ask Chicago’s Roberto Lopez. He sued, he won, he lost his shirt.
Judging from the facts of his dispute, Lopez’s anger was understandable, but assuaging it certainly wasn’t cost-effective.
In April 2016, Lopez parked his vehicle in a private lot at 2804 W. Flourney St., Chicago. About noon that day, Larry Chalmers, a friend of Lopez, saw a tow-truck driver preparing to tow Lopez’s vehicle from the parking lot.
As an individual “with lawful access to Lopez’s car,” Lopez’s friend “stepped in front of the tow truck to present himself and to notify (the tow-truck driver) that he was willing and able to relocate the vehicle,” court records show.
Under Illinois law, a tow-truck driver is required under those circumstances to allow an individual like Chalmers to move the car from the parking lot.
But Chicago is a rough place, where what’s right is often irrelevant.
The tow-truck driver ignored Chalmers’ offer to move the car and raced off, “nearly running Chalmers over in the process.”
Lopez’s very bad day was about to become very, very bad.
When he showed up at Rendered Services Inc., the towing firm, Lopez learned he would have to pay $218.50 to reclaim his car. He also discovered the right front bumper on his vehicle was damaged while towed, with the repair cost estimated to be another $837.96.
Lopez’s tab now exceeded $1,050.
Filled with righteous indignation, Lopez sued the towing company and its driver for the unlawful moving of his vehicle, and he won. The trial court ruled that the tow-truck driver forfeited his authority to remove the vehicle when Lopez’s friend offered to move it.
The trial judge — at Lopez’s request — then ordered the towing company to pay Lopez’s lawsuit legal fees. The judge assessed the legal tab at $6,125.
Lopez achieved a semblance of justice, if one does not count the inconvenience and out-of-pocket expenses involved.
Unfortunately, his victory proved to be a chimera because the court system is about law, not justice. There are many wrongs for which there are no remedies.
The tow company accepted its defeat, a marginal loss, on the towing issue.
But it vigorously challenged the order to pay $6,125 in legal fees to Lopez’s lawyer.
The towing company argued that it is exempt under state law from paying the fees because it was only following orders to remove the vehicle.
State law holds that “when an authorized person improperly causes a motor vehicle to be removed, such person shall be liable” for the costs of that removal.
“It is the ‘authorized person’ who ‘causes’ a vehicle to be removed; it is the ‘towing service’ that removes it,” wrote appellate Justice David Ellis.
Since Lopez sued the towing company, not the owner of the lot who “causes” improperly parked vehicles to be “removed,” he lost the $6,125 in legal fees that the lower court had ordered he be paid.
“By far the most natural and logical reading (of Illinois law) is that it awards fees only against the owner or lessor of the property, or someone authorized by that owner or lessor, who orders a vehicle removed from the property, and not the towing company,” Ellis wrote.
The opinion by the three-judge panel was unanimous. So the case, essentially, is over.
Lopez took a double beating — first in the parking lot and then in court.
If he has the stomach and the money, his lawyer could re-file the lawsuit and name the parking-lot owner as the defendant, not the towing company.
But that would cost more money in legal fees, and possible gains would have to be measured against existing losses.
Lopez did not win all the justice he wanted, but it seems likely he received all he can stand.