MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — At least two trucking companies that came to the Queen City this week to deliver needed food and supplies left with a boot – and a bill for thousands of dollars.
“Guys like this are trying to put a business out of business,” said Chris Steuart, the vice president of Texas-based trucking company Norco. “And we need to survive.”
The day before Mecklenburg County’s ‘Stay-at-Home’ order went into effect, Tip Towing slapped a boot on one of Norco’s trucks, forcing the company, which has a fleet of refrigerated carriers, to pay $3,000 to have it removed – after their driver just delivered more than 25,000 pounds of meat to a grocery distribution center, Steuart said.
“Most of the restaurants are closed so he went to a grocery store to get something to eat, parked in an adjacent, vacant lot,” said Steuart. “When he came out the truck was booted and the towing company demanded $3,000 to un-boot it.”
“He was in a panic for sure,” he said of his driver. “It’s a lot of money.”
It happened around 1:45 p.m. at a lot near the Asian Corner Mall located at 4520 N. Tryon St. in Charlotte. On its website, Tip Towing’s slogan says: “We are always on our tows.”
“They told us if we didn’t pay them the $3,000,” said Steuart, “they were going to tow it and we’d owe them $4,000.”
FOX 46 is working to get results for the company. Investigative reporter Matt Grant pressed Tip Towing’s owner, Alan Brown, by phone if he would refund the money, given the circumstances.
Brown says they were just doing their job.
“We are not a predatory company,” he said.
Brown claims Norco’s driver was sleeping in the vacant lot “for five hours” and had ignored multiple posted signs warning that the lot was considered private property and that violators would be towed.
Steuart denies that his driver was sleeping. He sent FOX 46 satellite tracking data which tracks the truck’s movements. He insists his driver was only in the supermarket for about 30 to 45 minutes and walked out to find the truck had been booted and rendered immobile.
“If you’ve got paperwork showing [the driver] dropped that food-run off, like a half-an-hour before he got booted, and he was just sitting in his truck for a few minutes and got booted,” said Brown, “I would absolutely refund that money.”
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‘Shut Up or Pay’
James Downey owns the Kentucky-based Downey Trucking. After midnight on Thursday, hours before the ‘Stay-at-Home’ order went into effect, he says his driver was also booted – while he was sleeping.
“There are some bad characters out there trying to take advantage of the situation,” said Downey.
Downey’s driver was booted by Trust Towing & Recovery. It happened at the Walmart located at 9820 Callabridge Ct. in Charlotte. Downey says his driver had dropped off needed supplies and picked up 80 cases of Dasani water from a Coca-Cola distributor to help during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The driver was asleep in the cab of his truck and had permission from Walmart to be in the parking lot, Downey said when Trust Towing put a boot on the wheel. Downey says his driver was told to cough up $3,600 “on the spot” or be towed and pay $8,000 later to get the truck back.
A Walmart spokesperson says the company is “aware of the situation and looking into it.”
“Drivers are out here working long hours to keep stores stocked and medical supplies moved,” said Downey. “The industry’s going through a tough time. But we’re still doing what we need to do for the American public.”
Downey says when they called the Trust Towing to complain they threatened to jack the price up.
“They told her if she didn’t shut up they were going to charge us $5,000 to remove the boot from the truck,” he recounted his employee being told.
Records show Trust Towing was paid $3,300 at 2:04 a.m., less than six hours before the ‘Stay-at-Home’ order went into effect.
FOX 46 tried calling Trust Towing several times. The company’s voicemail box was full and could not accept new messages. A text message also went unanswered.
In both instances, posted red and white signs warn that the lots are private and that towing is enforced, which is required by the city’s ordinance.
Both trucking companies are filing price gouging complaints with North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein’s office. Stein says his office will “absolutely” investigate this.
“It makes me feel dismayed,” said Stein in a video interview, when told what the trucking companies say happened to them. “It’s just absolutely awful.”
Because North Carolina is in a State of Emergency, price gouging – charging too much in a time of crisis – is illegal. That applies to any good or service that involves people’s health and welfare.
“Obviously, the delivery of food would meet that standard,” said Stein.
“I would urge any trucking company, or frankly any person if they’re being gouged because of this emergency,” said Stein, “let my office know so that we can investigate it and enforce North Carolina’s anti-price gouging law.”
It is unclear what the towing companies charged to remove boots for tractor-trailers under normal circumstances, or if what happened in these cases would be considered gouging.
Either way, the trucking company owners say they were just here to help. With money tight, this made an already difficult job even harder, the owners said.
‘Problems with Predatory Towing around this City’
For years, FOX 46 has reported on overzealous towing companies in Charlotte. Under normal circumstances, the city and police have treated complaints as a civil matter.
“We’ve had problems with predatory towing around this city,” said Charlotte City Council Member Larken Egleston. “We have them all the time. But this is certainly an unfortunate circumstance that somebody, during a crisis like this, would try to penalize companies that are trying to get essential services and essential goods out to the community.”
The city’s ordinance requires signs “clearly display” that a parking spot is “towing enforced” in red letters that must be at one and a half inches tall and be on a contrasting white background.
The signs also must be “permanently installed,” not less than three feet above the ground. Violators could be slapped with a $500 fine, according to the ordinance, which labels the offense a misdemeanor.
There are no limits to what tow companies can charge.
“We’d hope that if there ever be a time that people would try to work together and do the right thing it would be now,” said Egleston. “Unfortunately, for some, that’s not ever the case.”
File a price-gouging complaint with the state here.
File a price-gouging complaint or report violations of the stay-at-home order by downloading the CLTplus app.
Read the towing ordinance here.