A Clark County Superior Court judge will order a Washougal towing company to compensate three active-duty service members for illegally selling their vehicles at auction, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Wednesday.
Ferguson contends Chuck’s Towing committed an unfair business practice and violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act by failing to have policies and procedures in place to comply with the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act. The act requires companies to obtain a court order before selling vehicles owned by active-duty service members at auction.
The attorney general’s office said the owners of Chuck’s Towing cooperated with the investigation.
“We have worked tirelessly with the attorney general’s office to make this right,” Val Wedin, co-owner of Chuck’s Towing, told The Columbian. “We would never, ever do anything to harm any of our military.”
Chuck’s Towing will pay $13,087 to the three service members and $4,000 to the attorney general’s office for future Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act actions. The order will also require the company implement specific policies to prevent this from happening again.
The case is part of Ferguson’s ongoing Military & Veterans Initiative to protect the rights of Washington’s active-duty service members and veterans, and educate them on the resources available to them, according to a news release from his office.
“We’re working to reform the towing industry so that it follows our laws protecting active-duty service members from having their vehicles unlawfully sold at auction,” Ferguson said in the news release. “Lawsuits are not my goal, but we will reform this industry one enforcement action at a time, if necessary. My goal is to ensure that service members’ rights are protected.”
More than three dozen people have received restitution through Ferguson’s legal actions against towing companies across the state, according to his office.
The Department of Defense provides an active-duty service member database that companies can use to verify military status. The search is free for businesses registered on the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act website, and requires either a birthdate or Social Security number for verification.
In February 2020, a woman serving in the U.S. Coast Guard filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office after her vehicle was sold at auction while she was stationed in Oregon, according to the news release.
Wedin said Chuck’s Towing was dispatched by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office after the vehicle appeared to have been crashed and left in a ditch. The company legally towed the vehicle, then subsequently issued a 24-hour notice, ran an abandoned vehicle report and sent a certificate of mailing to the owner stating it would be auctioned; but the company did not hear back.
Chuck’s Towing then sold it at auction without first determining whether a service member owned it — which would have required the company obtain a court order to sell it, the news release states. The service member was still making payments on the vehicle through USAA, a financial services company that serves military members and their families.
The attorney general’s office’s investigation found Chuck’s Towing had auctioned two other vehicles, also belonging to service members, that were totaled or inoperable, the news release says.
The woman serving in the Coast Guard will receive $12,500, and the two other service members will receive $437 and $150, according to the attorney general’s office.
Ferguson said his office sent a letter to every licensed tow truck operator in the state in September, emphasizing their legal obligations to service members and providing resources to ensure their companies comply. The letter went to more than 400 tow truck operators.