Sailor wins compensation for car towed by Port Orchard garage while he was at sea

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A Port Orchard towing company will reimburse a Navy sailor for selling his car at auction while he was deployed aboard a submarine in the Pacific, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Dec. 13.

Bethel Garage, 6750 Bethel Rd. SE, will pay the sailor the net auction price for the car, plus $2,000 in compensation for the year he was without a car, Ferguson’s office said.

Federal and state laws require tow operators to obtain a court order before selling an active-duty service member’s vehicle at auction, with additional protections if the service member is deployed.

Submariner Vincent Rowell was on active duty on the USS Connecticut somewhere in the Pacific in December 2018 when a friend who had borrowed his car was involved in an accident, and the car was towed, according to court records.

The 2016 Hyundai Elantra was later sold at auction to a scrapyard in Lacey for $5,200.

Should have checked

Ferguson said Bethel Garage failed to follow the law. It should have checked to see if the car was owned by an active-duty service member, he said, and applied for a court order before selling it. There is a free public Department of Defense database that tow operators can use to check whether a vehicle is owned by a service member.

“The law is clear — towing companies have an obligation to determine whether a car belongs to a member of the military,” said Ferguson in a news release. “When our service men and women are deployed away from home and family, they should not need to worry whether their possessions are safe.”

Bethel Garage did not return a call requesting comment. But Ferguson said the towing company, also known as Bethel Towing, changed its procedures immediately after being contacted by his office, and now complies voluntarily with state and federal guidelines.

State law allows the towing company to keep the towing fee and storage charges, but it will return the balance — $3,983 — plus $2,000 compensation, to Rowell, according to Ferguson’s spokesperson, Brionna Aho.

Second local case

The case is similar to one that involved a Tacoma towing company and another Navy sailor.

While deployed on an aircraft carrier, Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Vaughn left his car at an apartment complex in Pierce County. It was towed, and later sold, by Burns Towing of Tacoma, the Attorney General’s Office said.

In May 2020, a Pierce County judge ruled that Burns Towing illegally auctioned off that vehicle and others owned by active-duty military service members. Burns Towing sold as many as 35 service members’ vehicles while they were on active duty, the Attorney General’s Office asserted in a lawsuit.