Burns Towing Inc. auctioned off a Navy sailor’s car without legally required court order
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today filed a lawsuit against a Tacoma-based towing company for illegally auctioning off a military service member’s vehicle while he was deployed at sea.
The lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, asserts the company, Burns Towing Inc., violated the Service Members’ Civil Relief Act, or the SCRA, a federal law that provides special protections to active duty service members. This law requires companies to obtain a court order before seizing or selling property belonging to a service member. Violations of the federal SCRA are also violations of state law — the Washington State Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act.
“Service members shouldn’t have to worry about their property being illegally sold while they’re deployed,” Ferguson said. “I will enforce our laws to make sure service members have the protections they have earned.”
While deployed on an aircraft carrier, a local Navy sailor, Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Vaughn left his car at an apartment complex in Pierce County, home to thousands of veterans and active service members. While Burns Towing legally towed the vehicle, the company proceeded to sell it without verifying the military status of its owner and obtaining a court order as required by law.
When Mr. Vaughn returned home and realized his car had been impounded, he contacted the Navy Legal Assistance Office, who sent a letter to Burns regarding the towing company’s violation of the law. Burns ignored the letter.
Mr. Vaughn then contacted the Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General’s Office wrote to Burns and requested a response to Mr. Vaughn’s complaint. Burns responded to the complaint by explaining that it "[had] no record of any notification that the [registered owner] was in the military service at the time." However, the law requires the towing company to affirmatively verify the military status of the owner before selling.
The Department of Defense provides an active-duty service member database that companies can use to easily verify military status. This search, available for free on the SCRA website, requires either a date of birth or a social security number to verify a person’s military status. Without that information, a company can pay a private company about $35 to run a search for them.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to order Burns to repay the service member for the damages resulting from the sale of his car, in addition to a civil penalty and attorney’s costs and fees. Additionally, the lawsuit asks the court to impose injunctions against Burns prohibiting future violations of the law.
The Washington SCRA allows for full restitution and penalties of up to $55,000 for a first offense and up to $110,000 for subsequent offenses.
As part of the lawsuit, Ferguson will conduct additional discovery into whether the towing company sold other cars belonging to service members without a legally required court order.
In 2014, the Washington State Legislature passed legislation drafted by Attorney General Ferguson and sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, which made possible this legal action. Their legislation made violations of the federal SCRA also violations of the Washington State SCRA, and provided the Attorney General with enforcement authority.
The lawsuit is part of the Attorney General’s Military and Veterans Initiative, Ferguson’s ongoing effort to stand up for Washington’s military service members and veterans. The initiative involves engaging and educating military service members and veterans about their rights and the resources available and vigorously enforcing the legal protections within the Attorney General’s authority. The office also promotes and facilitates access to civil legal services through the Attorney General’s Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance.
Burns will auction off more than 50 impounded vehicles on Tuesday, September 11. Attorney General Ferguson will investigate whether Burns has committed additional violations of the SCRA.
Veterans and service members who were affected by similar conduct, or any other deceptive business practices, may file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office at https://www.atg.wa.gov/file-complaint.
Assistant Attorney General John Nelson is handling the case for the Attorney General’s Office.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Dan Jackson, Acting Communications Director, (360) 753-2716; DanJ1@atg.wa.gov