Justin Kurtz’s car was parked in his apartment complex one day. When he went out to retrieve his beloved Saturn he found it gone. It seems that T&J Towing of Kalamazoo, Michigan spirited it away back to their secure yard and demanded $118 from him to get it back.Justin was filled with righteous indignation at having his car “stolen” by T&J Towing and did what any college student would do. He created a Facebook page about his experience. Within a couple of days 800 people had joined the page and many people were sharing their own experience.
How did T&J Towing of Kalamazoo Michigan respond? As any short sighted business with no understanding of the Internet or public relations. They sued him for $750,000.
The towing company said they had the right to tow him because his permit was not visible. Is there any proof that it wasn’t visible? I don’t believe so but I could be wrong. I haven’t found anywhere that says there was or wasn’t.
T&J Towing of Kalamazoo Michigan says that the Facebook fan page with 800 members was costing them business. I wonder, will suing a college student for nearly a million dollars and having it broadcast all over the web will not negatively affect their business?
Of course, First Amendment lawyers are up in arms over this. They see this as nothing more then a Slapp lawsuit (strategic lawsuit against public participation). In “the good ol’ days” if you were griping about a business, you did it in a bar or some other social gathering. Your rants were heard by no more then a few people and the story may or may not travel to a few more people. Now, you create a Facebook page or blog and the story spreads to a few hundred people (or more if you get sued).
Business owners who may make a mistake and see it broadcast T&J Towing of Kalamazoo Michigan will sue. Others may take a more pragmatic approach. In the end, it comes down to how wronged you were and how much value you put in your reputation.
Some companies, like the group Medical Justice, which helps protect doctors from meritless malpractice suits, advises its members to have patients sign an agreement that gives doctors more control over what patients post online.
There’s a bill in the House Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy, would enable a defendant who believes he or she is being sued for speaking out or petitioning on a public matter to seek to have the suit dismissed.
In Michigan, which does not have any anti-Slapp proection, Justin Kurtz’s legal battle has made him a local celebrity. His Facebook page has now grown to more than 12,000 members. So much for keeping the story quiet and making the problem go away.
On April 30, Justin Kurtz drove his Saturn to the courthouse and his team of lawyers asked the judge to dismiss the suit by T&J Towing of Kalamazoo Michigan, which has received a failing grade from the local Better Business Bureau for complaints over towing legally parked cars. Mr. Kurtz is also countersuing, claiming that T&J is abusing the legal process.
I love this quote: “There’s no reason I should have to shut up because some guy doesn’t want his dirty laundry out,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It’s the power of the Internet, man.”
I called T and J and was directed to their attorney for any questions that I might have.
UPDATE: I knew I had wrote a similar article to this at one time. I found it. I wrote about Horizon Realty which is/was a “Sue first, ask questions later kind of company” by their own words. They sued Amanda Bonnen $50,000 over a single tweet. The offending tweet to her friend read, “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon Realty thinks it’s okay.” The case was thrown out in January when the Judge ruled that the message was too vague.
UPDATE2: T&J has lost half of its commercial towing accounts, including Kurtz’s apartment complex, since the controversy began and filed a $750,000 slander and libel suit against Kurtz in April. Kurtz, an $8.50-an-hour store clerk, countersued T&J for violating his free speech rights and the state’s Consumer Protection Act. Source: Detroit Free Press
UPDATE3: Video Interview with Justin Kurtz:
UPDATE4: Ex-Employees of T&J Towing speak out: