Supreme Court says Manchester man who lost towed car while hospitalized can sue
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the law is on the side of a Manchester man who had his car towed six years ago from his apartment parking lot during a snowstorm.
Despite the unanimous ruling and thousands in legal bills, the saga is not over for David Pelkey, who wants compensation for his 2004 Honda Civic. The appeal reversed a pretrial decision that had found in favor of the defendant, Dan's City Auto Body & Towing Service.
"This just gets us back to square one and allows us to have a trial," said Brian Shaughnessy, Pelkey's lawyer. Shaughnessey said his legal bills far exceed the $12,000 value of the 2004 Honda.
Dan's City lost its appeal before the New Hampshire Supreme Court last year.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in the ruling. The Supreme Court only takes cases it considers important," said Andre Bouffard, the Burlington, Vt., lawyer who argued on behalf of Dan's City.
Pelkey sued Dan's City, claiming it did not follow state consumer protection laws when it disposed of his car after towing it in February 2007. Pelkey was in the hospital at the time, having his leg amputated because of complications from diabetes, Shaughnessy said.
He suffered a heart attack and remained hospitalized for two months, according to the ruling. Unable to find him, Dan's City put the car up for auction and then traded it, despite hearing from Pelkey's lawyer at the last minute that he wanted the car back, the ruling said.
Dan's City lawyers said Pelkey had no claim because federal laws that govern the trucking industry trump New Hampshire's consumer protection law.
In a ruling written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, justices said such a federal preemption would prevent anyone such as Pelkey from seeking a legal remedy. And preemption would void the state laws relied upon by tow companies to sell or dispose of unclaimed cars.
"No such design can be attributed to a rational Congress," Ginsburg wrote.
Bouffard said the ruling narrows the principle of federal preemption, and that truckers of all types will be open to lawsuits.
"It's hard to say what the next case might be where a motor carrier gets sued," he said.
Bouffard would not discuss Dan's City's bills so far. Shaughnessy said his bills will be significant; he spent two weeks preparing the case, and every filing with the Supreme Court cost $500. But he said the New Hampshire consumer protection law allows for attorney fees if he wins the case. He said Pelkey's landord, Colonial Village, is also part of the suit, which will be heard in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester.
Shaughnessy said it was an honor to argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in March.
"The New Hampshire Supreme Court did all the work in this case," Shaughnessy said. "Their analysis was applied by the Supreme Court."