There is no common law right to start a vehicle in Georgia: starting a car is not the same as rounding up cattle | Smith Gambrell Russell
In the case of RCC Wesley Chapel Crossing, LLC et al. vs. Forrest Allen et al., the Georgia Supreme Court considered whether there is a common law right for a private owner to start a vehicle parked on his property without permission. Starting involves immobilizing a vehicle until the owner pays to have the immobilizer removed.
Plaintiff sued the owner-operator of a parking lot and commercial tenants of the connected mall for negligence, premises liability, unlawful confinement, conversion and violation of Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The lawsuit alleged that after the plaintiff parked in the mall parking lot, his vehicle was immobilized by the placement of a trunk on one of his vehicle’s tires and he had to pay $650 for remove the trunk.
The defendants argued that under the common law — the body of law derived from court decisions rather than statutes — private owners are permitted to stop vehicles that encroach on their property. They asserted that the common law right to remove trespassing property encompasses a right to stop trespassing vehicles.
Defendants also asserted that the common law doctrine of “doer of distress damages,” which dates back hundreds of years, allows landowners to engage in the self-help remedy of forfeiting the property of another person when wrongfully on their land. The distress damage-doer doctrine recognizes a landowner’s right to seize trespassing livestock that stray onto their land and cause actual damage and hold it as collateral until the animal’s owner is identified. and compensates the landowner for his damages.
The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected these arguments. He held that neither the right to remove property from trespass nor the doctrine of distress damages doer support defendants’ vehicle starting practice.
The Court explained that the act of stopping a trespassing vehicle contrasts sharply with the common law power to remove trespassing chattels from a property because stopping the chattels perpetuates the trespass. Further, the Court noted that this common law remedy has been superseded, in part, by the Georgia Towing Act, which provides specific guidelines for the removal and seizure of vehicles, but is silent on the starting cars. To see OCGA § 44-1-13.
The Court held that the doctrine of the existence of distress damage did not apply to the facts of the case. Defendants cited no authority when a court applied the doer of distress doctrine to anything other than livestock or when a court held that a landowner had the common law right to confiscate and detain movable property, such as a vehicle, whose owner is easily identifiable. Indeed, the Court found that there is no statutory authority recognizing a common law right to immobilize unauthorized vehicles located on private property and hold them against the will of the owner until payment be received. The Court further noted that even if the plaintiff for distress damages were to apply to authorize the immobilization practice of the vehicle in issue, the defendants’ application would fail because the doctrine requires trespass and proof of actual damages and that the record did not support any damage suffered by the defendants. .
For any startup to occur on private property in Georgia, there must be a law or ordinance permitting it. Indeed, the Georgia District Court and Court of Appeals had held below that there is no right to immobilize a vehicle in the absence of an enabling statute or ordinance. . Some municipalities in Georgia have ordinances that specifically allow the starting of unauthorized vehicles, but that was not the situation presented in this case. And, as noted above, while Georgia law permits the towing and seizure of unauthorized vehicles in certain circumstances, that is not what the defendants have done here.