To tow or not to tow? Over the years of managing church properties, it sometimes becomes necessary to tow or remove vehicles from a parking lot. On one occasion, I even authorized the tow of a boat that had been gutted and left abandoned; luckily it was still on its trailer. The following is some basic information that will assist in removing vehicles from private property in California. Allowing them to remain presents an issue of liability.
Although this brief summation of the towing laws is looking from the perspective of the church property owner, the owner of the vehicle being towed has rights of their own not covered herein.
Please keep in mind that what follows is based on the California Vehicle Code, (CVC). Some municipalities have variations of these codes in place. As such, prior to towing any vehicle, you should always check with the local ordinances where your property is located. In some cities for example, a vehicle may not be towed from private property unless the local Police Department has first arrived at the scene of the tow and has cleared the vehicle for tow, while others only require a phone call to the local police department informing them of the identity of the person authorizing the tow, the property address, and the vehicle.
California Vehicle Code:
Under California Vehicle Code §22658(a), a private property owner may cause the removal of a vehicle parked on the property to a storage facility under ANY of the following circumstances:
- There is displayed, in plain view at all entrances to the property, a sign not less than 17 inches by 22 inches in size, with lettering not less than one inch in height, prohibiting public parking and indicating that vehicles will be removed at the owner’s expense, and containing the telephone number of the local traffic law enforcement agency and the name and telephone number of each towing company that is a party to a written general towing authorization agreement with the owner or person in lawful possession of the property. The sign may also indicate that a citation may also be issued for the violation.
- The vehicle has been issued a notice of parking violation, and 96 hours have elapsed since the issuance of that notice.
- The vehicle is on private property and lacks an engine, transmission, wheels, tires, doors, windshield, or any other major part or equipment necessary to operate safely on the highways, the owner or person in lawful possession of the private property has notified the local traffic law enforcement agency, and 24 hours have elapsed since that notification.
Are there exceptions to the rule:
However, under §22658(a)(1) above, to tow a vehicle from private property that is free for the public to use, it must have been illegally parked for at least one hour. So this brings to question whether or not a vehicle may be immediately towed without waiting an hour. If the vehicle is parked in a disabled space, within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, or in a fire lane or blocking the entrance to or exit from the property, that vehicle may be removed immediately under CVC §22953. If the vehicle is parked in your private church parking lot without authorization or permission, and the necessary signage referenced above is in place, those illegally parked vehicles may be towed without the benefit of the one (1) hour grace period. However, in an abundance of caution, there is little harm in allowing the grace period to run before authorization the tow to avoid the possibility of being charged with any fines or fees for violating resulting from an improper tow.
Who has authority?
In the situation of a church, an employee or someone authorized by the church, such as a property manager or agent, has the authority to tow the vehicle. In doing so, the individual authorizing the tow must be on site when the tow company arrives so that the tow company’s authorization form may be signed. It should be noted however that some municipalities permit the use of a general authorization form which grants the tow company to remove a vehicle only in specific situations without the presence of anyone, such blocking a fire hydrant or entrance.
Remember to post your property as stated above. A private property owner who has a vehicle towed without posting tow-away signs at all of the entrances, who fails to place a notice on the vehicle 96 hours before towing (or 24 hours if the vehicle is missing major parts), or who fails to state the reason for the tow when requested by the vehicle owner may be liable for twice the towing or storage charges, CVC § 22658(e)(1). In addition, the owner of the vehicle may be able to recover for any damage caused to the vehicle resulting from any intentional or negligent act of a person causing the removal of, or removing, the vehicle.
Parking Lot Liability:
Should your church elect to permit others to park on your church parking lot, you are certainly free to do so, but you do so at your own risk. By permitting others, even your own church members to park on your lot brings with it liability.
You should always be sure that the parking lot has good lighting, that drainage gutters are clear and flowing properly, and that you always keep walkways unobstructed. Draw attention to dangerous areas such as cracks or bumps caused by tree roots by using orange safety cones, or brightly colored paint. You should also make sure that all of the parking spaces are clearly marked and sized appropriately to your local ordinances. In addition, ensure that all valves, junction boxes, pipelines, and electrical box are securely covered. Finally, don’t forget to inspect for damage or other issues that could result in harm, and correct the situation accordingly.
Check with your insurance!
Then there is the necessary insurance to protect your church in case something does happen. Check with your insurance carrier about having the right type of insurance for your parking lot. Be sure to get the coverage necessary to ensure that if someone or their vehicle does suffer harm that your church is covered. If you offer parking to third parties, be sure you are taking normal precautions to protect their vehicles so you can avoid being found negligent. This includes requiring that party to carry their own general liability coverage naming your church as additional insured, and further requiring that party’s insurance carrier to also issue an endorsement to the policy naming the church as additional insured. This is often easier said than done, but completely reasonable when you’re allowing a neighboring business to permit their employees or patrons to use your lot. In most cases, a residential neighbor will not be willing to provide you with general liability insurance, and naturally, this instance causes the greatest liability.
If you do permit a neighboring business to use your church parking lot, in addition to requiring general liability insurance, put the authorization in writing. Make sure you spell out when, where, and how many parking spaces may be used. Finally, make sure you receive an indemnity waiver from them stating that they will defend your church if something happens to an individual or vehicle.
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Disclaimer: Every situation is different and particular facts may vary thereby changing or altering a possible course of action or conclusion. The information contained herein is intended to be general in nature as laws vary between federal, state, counties, and municipalities and therefore may not apply to any given matter. This information is not intended to be legal advice or relied upon as a legal opinion, course of action, accounting, tax or other professional service. You should consult the proper legal or professional advisor knowledgeable in the area that pertains to your particular situation.