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Inc. v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles

Supreme Court of Connecticut

July 12, 2016

MODZELEWSKI'S TOWING AND RECOVERY, INC.
v.
COMMISSIONER OF MOTOR VEHICLES

          Argued January 20, 2016

          Drew S. Graham, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, was George Jepsen, attorney general, for the appellant (defendant).

          Kenneth A. Votre, with whom was Richard E. Fennelly III, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa and Robinson, Js.

          OPINION

          ZARELLA, J.

         The principal issue in this administrative appeal is whether state laws regulating the fees charged for certain services provided in the course of the non-consensual towing of a motor vehicle are preempted by federal law. The defendant, the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles (commissioner), appeals from the judgment of the trial court reversing in part the decision of the Department of Motor Vehicles (department) that Connecticut's statutes and regulations regarding non-consensual towing services are not preempted under 49 U.S.C. § 14501 (c) (2) (C) (2012)[1] and that the plaintiff, Modzelewski's Towing and Recovery, Inc., had overcharged for the nonconsensual towing of a motor vehicle trailer and must pay restitution in the amount of $12, 787 to the trailer's insurer. On appeal to this court, the commissioner claims that the trial court incorrectly determined that the fees charged by the plaintiff for the use of a 1075 rotator truck for recovery of the damaged trailer prior to the actual towing, for towing recovery operations, generally, for the use of its major incident response truck during the recovery operation, and for services performed in connection with the storage of a damaged vehicle following a nonconsensual towing are not subject to state regulation. The plaintiff responds that, when a towing is nonconsensual, federal law authorizes the state to regulate only the fee charged for the actual towing and that the state cannot regulate storage rates incident to the towing. The plaintiff also argues that, if this court concludes that the fees charged for recovery services are not subject to state regulation, it cannot review whether the trial court properly reinstated charges for the plaintiff's use of the major incident response truck. We agree with the commissioner and reverse in part the judgment of the trial court.

         I

         FACTS

         The following undisputed facts are set forth in the trial court's memorandum of decision. ‘‘On September 8, 2011, [the] state police called the plaintiff, a towing and recovery services company, to the scene of an accident on Interstate 84 near Newtown. The accident occurred when a passenger vehicle struck the rear of a trailer that was carrying a twenty-eight foot power boat and was hitched to a pick-up truck. As a result of the crash, the boat shifted position, and the trailer became unsafe.

         ‘‘At the accident scene, the plaintiff used a ‘1075' unit to pick up the front of the boat and restrap it to the trailer. The plaintiff next disconnected the trailer from the truck, removed the trailer and boat from the highway, and used the 1075 machine to place the trailer and boat on a [low bed] tractor trailer. The final phase that day involved the plaintiff's transport of the trailer and boat to its facility in Newtown for storage and further police investigation.

         ‘‘On September 9, [the] police conducted an inspection of the trailer and boat. The inspection required the plaintiff to lift the trailer with a warehouse forklift in order to place and then remove scales underneath it for the purpose of [weighing the trailer and boat]. The combined weight classification of the trailer and boat unit was between 10, 000 and 26, 000 pounds.

         ‘‘The plaintiff charged Eric Unser, the owner of the boat and trailer, $14, 732.50 for its services on September8 and 9. Unser's insurer, Boat U.S. Marine Insurance, paid the bill on behalf of [Unser].

         ‘‘On October 11, 2011, Unser filed a complaint with the department . . . claiming that he was overcharged. The department held a hearing on October 2, 2012. Relying on department regulations governing charges allowed for nonconsensual, ‘medium duty' towing, the hearing officer ruled that the plaintiff had overcharged Unser and Boat U.S. Marine [Insurance] in the amount of $12, 787. . . .

         ‘‘The restitution order of $12, 787 represented the difference between the total charged by the plaintiff ($16, 699.50) and the total allowed by the department ($3912.50). The hearing officer rejected the plaintiff's claim that federal statutes preempt the department's regulations. The [hearing] officer held that ‘[t]ransportation of a motor vehicle as set forth in 49 U.S.C. § 14501 (c) (2) (C) contemplates a process intended to accomplish an end and cannot be limited by focusing on one aspect, i.e. ‘‘tow truck, '' as suggested by the [plaintiff].'

         ‘‘Accordingly, the hearing officer ordered the plaintiff to pay Boat U.S. Marine [Insurance] restitution of $12, 787 within thirty days of the decision. The [hearing] officer also ruled that, if the plaintiff failed to comply, the department would disqualify the plaintiff's license, seek recovery from the plaintiff's repairer bond, and impose a civil penalty of $1125 prior to any license reinstatement.''

         The plaintiff appealed to the trial court, which sustained the appeal in part. The court first concluded that the damaged trailer qualified as a ‘‘motor vehicle'' and that the low bed tractor trailer used to transport the damaged vehicle qualified as a ‘‘tow truck'' within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. §§ 13102 (16) and 14501 (c) (2) (C), respectively, of the federal preemption scheme. The court thus concluded that ‘‘the actual towing component of this case involved a nonconsensual ‘for-hire motor vehicle transportation by a tow truck' under [49 U.S.C. § 14501] (c) (2) (C)'' and that the commissioner had authority to regulate the rate that the plaintiff charged for that service, the cost of which the hearing officer had disallowed entirely.

         The trial court next concluded, however, that the commissioner did not have authority to regulate the fees charged for the plaintiff's pretowing recovery and posttowing services. The pretowing recovery services included the plaintiff's use of the 1075 rotator truck, the major incident response truck and the heavy duty recovery straps for the purpose of repositioning the vehicle on the trailer to ensure its stability. The posttowing services included storage of the trailer and related warehouse operations.[2] The court determined that state regulation governing pretowing and posttowing services is preempted by federal law, and, therefore, the plaintiff was not required to refund payments made by the insurer for these services.

         Thereafter, the commissioner appealed[3] from the trial court's judgment, claiming that state regulation of pretowing and posttowing services is not subject to federal preemption. Oral argument was heard on January 20, 2016, in conjunction with Raymond's Auto Repair, LLC v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles (SC 19454), in which the commissioner raised a similar claim regarding pretowing recovery services. On January 26, 2016, we ordered the parties to address the following question in supplemental briefs: ‘‘Does 49 U.S.C. § 14501 (c) (1), which prohibits state[s] and political subdivisions thereof from enacting or enforcing any law related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier with respect to the transportation of property, apply to ‘pretowing services' (as defined in the trial court's [memorandum of decision]) or ‘posttowing services'?'' (Emphasis in original.)

         II

         STANDARD ...


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