Fulton County State Court Judge Eric Richardson, who is handling about 30 “unlawful booting class actions,” has declined to toss out most of the claims.
Recent rulings by the judge overseeing dozens of putative class actions targeting the operators of booting services in and around Atlanta have moved the cases closer to trial, and cleared the way for plaintiffs attorneys to seek class certification.
The complaints say booting companies and the property owners who hire them have made millions of dollars off of unwary drivers who have been illegally forced to pay to have their cars released from the steel “vehicle immobilization devices,” usually $75 a pop.
Fulton County State Court Judge Eric Richardson, who has about 30 of what are styled the “unlawful booting class actions,” last month declined to toss out claims, including false imprisonment, negligence and premises liability, against the defendants in two cases, ruling that there is “no common law right to immobilize vehicles on one’s own property for compensation or profit.”
Ruling on a motion to dismiss, Richardson kept alive all of the claims in one case, except those for racketeering and conversion, which he said could not be applied to the money booting companies demand to remove the devices.
The ruling tracks one he issued earlier in another class action in April.
“We’re litigating them one-by-one,” said Matt Wetherington, who is representing the plaintiffs in all the cases with associate Robert Friedman.
They began filing the suits in various venues in 2016, but most have been transferred to Richardson’s court with more still being filed.
Wetherington said he is under a court order not to discuss individual pending cases, but noted that he recently filed a new one and is preparing another involving a man who was shot in a confrontation with a booting company employee.
The complaints, which mirror each other, involve claims that companies are operating in violation of municipal ordinances governing towing and booting.
In Atlanta, where most of the allegedly illegal booting occurred, city ordinances require that signs on parking lots must include the name and phone number of the booting company and parking lot owner; the cost of removing the boot; notice that the fee can be paid by cash, check or credit card; and that vehicles cannot be booted if the owner or driver returns before it has been attached. The size of the lettering and municipal code ordinance number is also often required, as is the size, number and location of the signs.
The complaints level claims such as unjust enrichment, criminal trespass, false imprisonment, fraudulent concealment, conversion, criminal concealment, money had and received, premises liability and violations of Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statutes, among others.
Defendant booting companies and property owners have argued that they endeavor to follow the letter of the local ordinances, but are being targeted for ”technical” violations, and that owners have the right to control who parks on their property.
They have also argued that, even if they are in violation of such ordinances, local police and code officials are the ones empowered to enforce the law, and that the defendants have no standing to sue.
In his July 15 order in Anderson v. Empire Parking Services, Richardson disposed of nearly all of the defendants’ arguments. In addition to noting that nothing in Georgia law allows for a property owner to immobilize a vehicle, Richardson also said the municipal ordinance in question does not bar a private right to sue.
The argument that the suit only raises issues of “technical” violations also failed, he said, “because, even if defendants are correct that they substantially complied with the ordinance, substantial compliance does not shield them from liability.”
The judge also said the claim that the plaintiff’s booting did not violate Georgia’s false imprisonment statute was in error.
“In Georgia, false imprisonment may be shown by an unlawful exercise of dominion and control over personal property,” Richardson wrote.
“It is undisputed in the present case that defendant exercised control over plaintiff’s vehicle. Accordingly, plaintiff has pled [a] claim for false imprisonment.”
The Daily Report attempted to reach several of the many attorneys defending the cases, but none immediately responded.
Wetherington noted that, while legislation aimed at imposing statewide regulation on booting companies failed this year in the General Assembly, several cities and municipalities have moved to crack down or outright ban booting.
“Three things need to happen next,” he said. “Community leaders have to step up and protect citizens from predatory behavior; booting companies have to bring themselves into compliance with the law; and the victims have to be compensated. That’s where the courts come in.”