Tow Service Taken to Task Over Sailor's Jeep

     (CN) - A towing service wrongly sold a sailor's Jeep Grand Cherokee while he was deployed on a Virginia-based warship, a magistrate judge ruled.
     The U.S. Navy ordered Andre Gordon to report to Norfolk, Va., for duty in January 2007. When Gordon leased a nearby apartment with his wife, he explained that he was subject to deployment and that, if he was deployed, his wife planned to return to their Jacksonville, Fla., residence.
     On the lease, Gordon identified his 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee and named his wife as his emergency contact.
     Gordon was deployed in March 2007 and left his Jeep in the apartment complex's parking lot. His wife returned to Florida.
     By May, the apartment complex called Pete's Auto Service to tow Gordon's Jeep. Pete's stored the Jeep for 35 days, then sold the vehicle to itself at auction to satisfy its $1,200 lien on the vehicle for towing and storage costs. Pete's retitled the Jeep in its own name and sold it to a third party for $4,500 in June.
     Neither Pete's nor the apartment complex contacted either Gordon or his wife, nor did Pete's obtain a court order before enforcing its lien on the vehicle.
     A federal judge in Newport News originally dismissed Gordon's case for failure to state a claim, but Gordon finally had a stroke of good luck with passage of the Veterans' Benefits Act of 2010.
     The 4th Circuit revived the case after retroactively applying the law last year.
     On remand, U.S. Magistrate Judge F. Bradford Stillman granted Gordon's motion for summary judgment.
     "Gordon's ownership of the vehicle at the time of the alleged conversion is undisputed," the March 12 decision states. "It is further undisputed that, in transferring the title to the vehicle to itself, and then subsequently to a third party, Pete's Auto Servcie exercised dominion or control over Gordon's property, thus depriving Gordon of possession."
     "That Pete's Auto Service may have mistakenly believed that it had a legal right to re-title the Jeep is of no moment," he added. "Because the defendant had no legal right to take title to the Jeep without first obtaining a court order, its acquisition of the vehicle constitutes the wrongful exercise of dominion or control over the plaintiff's property, depriving the plaintiff of possession."
     Stillman also awarded Gordon attorneys' fees in an amount yet to be determined.