Class action lawsuit filed against Detroit's Breakthrough Towing

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A Breakthrough Towing driver idles on East Canfield, waiting for his next victim. - VIOLET IKONOMOVA
  • Violet Ikonomova
  • A Breakthrough Towing driver idles on East Canfield, waiting for his next victim.

A Detroit towing company that has come under fire for its aggressive tactics and $400-plus cash-only towing fees is now facing a class action lawsuit that alleges it routinely engages in "illegal, predatory, and rogue practices."

The suit filed Friday by attorneys with the Truth2Power Civil Justice Fund alleges that Breakthrough Towing violated state towing laws by hauling vehicles from private lots without proper permission, refusing to release vehicles to owners who showed up before their vehicle was towed, and failing to notify police before removing vehicles. The alleged violations occurred at a range of locations in Detroit and Hamtramck including Midtown Liquor & Deli on Woodward and the CVS on Holbrook.

Breakthrough Towing was recently the subject of a viral YouTube video that purported to show the company trying to tow McDonald's customers legally parked outside the restaurant's location on Woodward in Midtown.

The allegations detailed in the suit plus a handful of additional horror stories shared by Breakthrough victims with Metro Times together paint a picture of an operation so aggressive that it easily catches people parked legally, taking their cars regardless of circumstance. As one of the plaintiffs in the case says she was told by a driver — "once he was dispatched, no matter if the car was hooked up or not, he had to take it." Once caught, vehicle owners can be robbed of a week's paycheck almost instantaneously, forced to pay cash for tows starting around $400 with additional fees tacked on for inevitabilities, like having to retrieve their vehicle registration from inside the car. The company appears to rely on "spotters" for alerts when a car has been parked too long (it denies this, but we've seen people stationed for hours at a time outside at least one of the lots from which it tows) and keeps its trucks idling throughout Midtown, in close proximity to several of the businesses it services.

Breakthrough Towing owner Michael Dickerson declined to comment for this report and said he would forward our request for comment to his lawyer.

Since publishing our initial story on the company's presence at McDonald's, we've heard from a number of people who say the company tried to tow them from outside of businesses where they were customers, damaged their vehicles, and cursed at or threatened them.

Timothy Bates and Tonika Williams each say they were inside the McDonald's on Woodward for less than 20 minutes when their cars were hooked up to a Breakthrough truck to be hauled away. Williams, whose run-in with the towing company occurred two years ago, had luck in getting the truck driver to release her car when she explained she was a customer. Bates, whose car was taken by the company in August, did not.

The 28-year-old says his car was scooped up in the time it took him to use the restaurant's bathroom and pick up an order for his meal delivery job with the company DoorDash.

"I said [to the driver], 'Why are you towing my car?' And he said, 'Because you wasn't in there,'" says Bates.

Bates says he'd just emerged from the restaurant carrying his red DoorDash delivery bag with the McDonald's order inside. Still, the driver pulled off.

"He just didn't seem to care," Bates says. "It seemed like it's all about money. They don't care about what people go through."

Bates says he was forced to fork over $420 cash to retrieve his vehicle — a week's worth of earnings.

Others, like Leng Vang and Brad LaPlante, say their cars were damaged by Breakthrough, forcing them to spend prolonged periods without a vehicle or hundreds of dollars in repairs on top of already hefty tow fees.

Vang's car was discovered damaged by an Air Force sergeant based outside D.C. who says he was inspired by the viral video about Breakthrough to stake out the McDonald's on a recent trip to Detroit. Juan Rodriguez says he only had to spend a few minutes outside the restaurant before one of the company's trucks whizzed by him and turned onto Willis.

"Sure enough ... that tow truck just went out past me and then I saw him start to tow a red car and I just decided to stay there," says Rodriguez. "He didn't even properly secure the vehicle, he wanted to get it out in such a rush."

In video of the incident posted by Rodriguez to Reddit, a Breakthrough truck is seen lifting and pulling away a red Honda Fit to reveal a large puddle underneath that appears to be leaked oil. Rodriguez says he watched Breakthrough drop the car shortly before he started recording.

Thanks to Rodriguez and a Reddit sleuth who linked an address to the license plate on the car, Vang, the owner of the vehicle, is now listed as a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Breakthrough. Lawyers allege the company damaged Vang's oil repository, took it to get fixed without his permission, and left him without transportation for more than a week. They say Vang was not made to pay for the repair or tow.

LaPlante, meanwhile, tells us his car came back with a snapped brake line after it was towed from the McDonald's lot in December while he attended a nearby concert. It was a costly night out — on top of the $420 cash he says he had to pay to get his car back, he dropped an additional $200 on the repair.

An employee whose office overlooks both the McDonald's and the Midtown liquor store from which Vang was towed says he has seen Breakthrough trucks drop vehicles "recklessly, from two feet or higher" on multiple occasions. Ironically, the company's business cards say "damage-free towing."

A Breakthrough truck tows a vehicle from Midtown Liquor & Deli, blocking traffic. - BRIAN MOORE
  • Brian Moore
  • A Breakthrough truck tows a vehicle from Midtown Liquor & Deli, blocking traffic.

But the complaints we've heard about Breakthrough extend beyond possibly illegal and reckless tows. Employees with the company have also been accused of intimidation and harassment.

In a police report obtained by the Truth2Power Civil Justice Fund through FOIA and reviewed by Metro Times, a Breakthrough tow truck driver is alleged to have threatened with violence a Hamtramck business owner who confronted the driver for towing customers' cars. "I'm going to fucking kill you, you are going to disappear because they call me killer," the driver was reported to have said.

Another woman came forward to share an experience with Breakthrough that she says still "startles" her "to this day." Five years ago, Rachael Hone was towed by Breakthrough from the liquor store on Forest and Third avenues within 45 minutes of parking. When she went to the tow yard to retrieve her vehicle, she says a Breakthrough employee raised the fee from $300 to $350 because it took her more than 15 minutes to return from the ATM. Hone put up a fight, and says the employee then raised the price to $400, saying that's what she gets for her "bad attitude." She says the employee then taunted her by lifting her car down from the tow truck, and back on, saying "I control your car so you have to do what I say." When she paid up, she says the Breakthrough employee offered these parting words: "Get fucking lost, you little bitch."

This month, a Breakthrough tow truck driver told a Metro Times reporter that he would "smack" the cell phone out of his hands.

Legality?

Lawyers allege Breakthrough has violated numerous Michigan towing laws by operating without proper approvals from private property owners, refusing to release vehicles to owners who show up before their car is towed, taking cars from places that lack adequate signage, and failing to inform police before a tow takes place.

An apparently inaccurate warning at the McDonald’s in Midtown. According to people who’ve been victimized by Breakthrough, even customers can get towed here. - VIOLET IKONOMOVA
  • Violet Ikonomova
  • An apparently inaccurate warning at the McDonald’s in Midtown. According to people who’ve been victimized by Breakthrough, even customers can get towed here.

At at least two of the locations listed in the suit — Midtown Liquor & Deli and the CVS on Holbrook — Breakthrough may not have had license to tow. An employee with the liquor store tells us Breakthrough had permission to tow only from the spaces along the building, not the portion of the lot that stretches past the store to the front of a house on Willis where Vang was parked. The employee, Louie, who would only provide his first name, says the store does not own that land.

Meanwhile, at CVS, a store manager this spring told the Hamtramck Review that he had not authorized Breakthrough to tow. While Dickerson, the company's owner, did provide Metro Times with a photo of one page of a purported contract, it was dated 2015 and signed by only a "Mike Kyle — manager," when the store manager's full name is reportedly Mike Raynor. When Raynor allowed the towing signs at CVS to be taken down, Breakthrough did not put up a fight.

(Adding to the strangeness of this particular situation, Dickerson says the CVS manager would call him at the end of each evening shift to say the company could take any vehicles from the lot except his and those belonging to other employees. When asked what incentive Raynor might have had to do that, Dickerson said he didn't know. He did take issue with us posting the rate that was listed in the contract — $370 per tow. Bumbo's patrons towed from the lot were made to pay between $420 and $500 to retrieve their vehicles, lawyers say. We reached out to Raynor, but he abruptly put us on hold when we identified ourselves and explained why we were calling. He did not return a request for comment left with a coworker.)

In cases in which a vehicle owner shows up for their vehicle before it's towed, Michigan law states "the vehicle shall be disconnected from the tow truck, and the owner or other person who is legally entitled to possess the vehicle may take possession of the vehicle and remove it without interference upon the payment of the reasonable service fee." Olivia Robertson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, alleges her car was taken even after she showed up to retrieve it, and that the Breakthrough driver told her that once he's dispatched he has to return with a vehicle.

Lawyers also allege that when Robertson was towed from the CVS in April, there was only one towing warning notice in the lot, and it was tucked behind a dumpster. In Veng's case, there was no sign on the gate in front of which he parked. Michigan law says towing warning notices must be "prominently displayed at each point of entry for vehicular access" to the property.

State law additionally requires that towing companies contact the local police department before removing vehicles from private property. Based on the FOIA we reviewed from the Hamtramck Police Department, Breakthrough failed to do this in at least one case, prompting a man who'd been towed to report his car stolen.

Lastly — though this is not mentioned in the suit — the apparent cash-only component of Breakthrough's enterprise raises additional legal questions.

"They're wreaking havoc not just on the citizens but the business of metro Detroit," says Tony Paris, an attorney on the case. "It's predatory, it's illegal, and they can't be rogue — they need to follow basic laws."

Dickerson declined to comment on the allegations, but did say of Metro Times, "You guys are like bad news, you just report bad news when you don't know all the facts."

We asked Dickerson to enlighten us. He said he'd have his lawyer give us a call.

If you've had a run in with Breakthrough Towing and suspect the company may have broken the law, you can reach out to the attorneys handling the class action via email here.

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