As towers we’ve become desensitized to the trauma associated with being involved in a traffic accident.  Whereas the majority of the population tends to shy away and be fearful of situations involving crushed metal and broken glass, towers thrive on them.  Which means we’ve got to step back and use a little empathy when dealing with people who’ve recently been involved in an accident.

One topic that always comes up after such incidents is the removal of items left in the vehicle.  In my state, Missouri, state statutes say that: “The towing company is not required to release personal property within the abandoned vehicle to the owner until reasonable or agreed to charges for recovery, transportation, or safekeeping have been paid or satisfactory arrangements for payment are agreed upon.”

The statute was put in place so as to give the towing company some leverage when a motorist is carrying liability only insurance. It’s quite reasonable sense, when the law was put into effect, the value of scrap was low. Should the tower be required to sell the vehicle to recoup money owed he may or may not be paid in full.

Not all states are like Missouri, some require you to collect and inventory personal belongings and have no provisions that state that the vehicle owner must arrange for your compensation beforehand.  Fairness notwithstanding, your state’s laws may or may not allow motorists to retrieve belongings from their vehicles without, you first, receiving compensation for the work provided.

Various types of tows and suggestions on releasing personal items from impounded vehicles.

  • Accident Tows when the vehicle owner is covered in full- This means that the insurance company is paying the bill. In this instance you will be paid in full which means you should have no problem allowing the owner to get their stuff. In fact once you learn that the owner has full coverage and that you’ll be paid- In most states you’re required to release their property.
  • Accident Tows with Liability Only- This is where the vehicle owner is solely responsible for paying your bill.  It’s your choice but if the car is totaled and has little value there’s little chance you’ll be paid.  If you know the owner isn’t going to pay you and you can sell it for scrap to recoup your tow bill and storage then allowing the customer to retrieve their belongings is suggested.  Why? Because not doing so will create bad feelings which can harm your business in the long run.  Don’t be stingy- make the deal.
  • Accident Tows with Liability Only, Where the other guy is at fault- This is kind of a tricky one but our suggestion here is to error on the side of caution and let them get their stuff- Because even if the other guy’s insurance company doesn’t pay the freight you’ll still have possession of the vehicle and you wont lose a customer.  And sometimes when the other guy’s insurance fails to come through-The owner of the wrecked vehicle will pay part of the bill and allow you to sell their car for scrap.
  • Private Party Impounds- If you’re working inside city limits or in certain business districts the rules for PPI’s can be different than what your statutes provide. Whether or not you should allow customers to retrieve personal property from PPI’s will depend on a number of things. 1. Are you allowed to take possession of and dispose of the vehicle, to your benefit, should the owner fail to pick it up? 2. What are the details of your contractual obligations? 3. Are you required to allow them to retrieve their property? 4. Can you collect an additional fee by allowing them to retrieve their property? With all that being said the best course of action would be to allow them to get their stuff.  In most instances the value of a PPI is much more than a wrecked vehicle, which means you’re going to get paid- one way or another.  And making as little waves as you can down at city hall will be to your benefit.

As you gain experience working with people and their property you’ll run across a wide variety of situations.  The thing to remember and reiterate to those you’re charged with serving is that “You don’t want their property” you just want to be compensated for the work done.