Ruling in towing debacle again favors restaurant patron

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Bob Gierl is 3-for-3 in his legal fight with Howard's Towing of Greenfield.

A district judge ruled in his favor last year. An arbitration panel ruled in his favor earlier this year. And now Common Pleas Judge W. Terrence O'Brien has ruled in his favor.

Mr. Gierl was eating lunch at Arby's restaurant on Forbes Avenue in Oakland on Jan. 14 last year when he looked out and saw that one of Howard Szuminsky's tow trucks was preparing to remove his car from the parking lot. There are 12 signs posted around the 30-space lot stating that it is to be used only by employees and customers.

When manager Edward Denney refused to intervene, Mr. Gierl ran out and confronted Joseph Stickles, the tow truck operator who had just hoisted his white 2000 Ford Crown Victoria.

Words were exchanged.

Mr. Gierl demanded that Mr. Stickles lower his car. Mr. Stickles demanded $140 in cash. Mr. Gierl paid it under protest. He then began his now 21-month-long effort against Howard's Towing and Mr. Denney to recover his money and to compel Mr. Szuminsky to pay for the damage done to the back of his car.

In doing so, Mr. Gierl learned a few things.

He learned, for instance, that Arby's didn't have a valid city towing license on Jan. 14, 2005. In fact, it didn't get one until after I interviewed Mr. Denney about a customer whose car was towed. The licenses, which are issued by the city's Bureau of Building Inspection, are valid from Nov. 1 through Oct. 31 and must be renewed every year.

That meant that from Nov. 1, 2004, until April 14, 2005, Arby's had no authorization to have any car towed from the lot. The city said it is Arby's responsibility to obtain the towing license and to post notification of same on one of its signs in the lot that warns parkers that their cars will be towed unless they are eating in the restaurant.

According to a letter from the bureau that Mr. Gierl used as evidence in his case, the "towing of vehicles in a nonresidential parking lot is not permitted without said license and doing so is a violation of the Pittsburgh Code ... "

Because Arby's didn't have the necessary license, which cost $112 at the time, Howard's Towing shouldn't have removed any vehicles during that 5 1/2-month period.

And, because Arby's failed to use chains or some other type of barrier to keep vehicles off the lot when the restaurant was closed from midnight until 10 a.m. during that same time period, the restaurant was subject to a $1,000 fine for each vehicle improperly removed from the lot.

You would think Arby's would have been one of the first to apply for a new towing license when the old one expired Oct. 31, but you would be wrong. Records at the Bureau of Building Inspection show that Arby's didn't get its license until Nov. 30.

Once again, it had no authorization to have any vehicle removed from the lot during those 30 days. But Howard's Towing removed them.

Judge O'Brien ordered Howard's Towing to pay $464.75 to Mr. Gierl. Mr. Szuminsky yesterday said he doesn't know if he'll appeal.

Mr. Denney didn't appear for any of the court appearances. An Arby's official couldn't be reached for comment.


Lawrence Walsh can be reached at pyp@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1895.


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