Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 98-LM-1082 Honorable Wendell Durr, Judge, presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn
Defendant, Todd Bowers, doing business as Bowers Towing and Repair (Bowers), appeals from the trial court's April 8, 1999, order entering judgment on Bowers' counterclaim for towing and storage fees in the amount of $1,050. We reverse and remand.
On October 24, 1996, Clarence and Daphane Jackson (the Jacksons) purchased a 1987 Kenworth T800 semi-tractor for approximately $10,000. The loan was held by Citizens Bank & Trust Company out of Paducah, Kentucky. The record is silent as to the person or entity from whom the Jacksons purchased the truck. Although lacking in evidence, the record contains hints that the Jacksons may have purchased the truck from Daphane Jackson's brother, Jimmie Powers. For some unknown reason, transfer of the title was delayed. The record contains reference to correspondence between Citizens Bank & Trust Company and the Illinois Secretary of State's office in December 1996 at which time the bank sent additional documentation. On August 11, 1997, title was finally issued in the Jacksons' name, and it listed Citizens Bank & Trust Company as the lienholder and the entity to whom the original title was sent.
The record indicates that the truck did not get utilized until the summer of 1996. During that time, the Jacksons improved the truck by adding a sleeper compartment. In June 1996, the Jacksons hired Daphane's brother, Jimmie Powers, as their driver. Jimmie Powers maintained an Illinois commercial driver's license. Clarence Jackson was apparently in school and working towards obtaining his own commercial driver's license. Unbeknownst to the Jacksons, Jimmie Powers was wanted on an outstanding federal warrant. *fn1
The Jacksons answered a newspaper advertisement seeking drivers who owned their own tractors. The company that so advertised was Argosy Transportation, Inc. (Argosy), with offices in St. Louis, Missouri. The Jacksons did not enter into a written lease with Argosy but agreed to haul one of its trailers. The first trip for Argosy the Jacksons agreed to make was on June 13, 1997. We surmise that the trip originated in St. Louis because all Argosy references are to St. Louis, but no evidence was adduced regarding this fact. Sometime around 4 a.m., Jimmie Powers pulled the Jacksons' tractor with Argosy's trailer into a weigh station on northbound Interstate 55 near Litchfield, Montgomery County, Illinois. As part of the routine checks that are run by the Illinois State Police at the weigh station, law enforcement officials determined the existence of the federal warrant bearing Jimmie Powers' name. Somehow, Jimmie Powers was able to leave the area on foot before he was taken into custody. Jimmie Powers has not been seen since. He left the tractor and trailer sitting at the weigh station.
From the Illinois State Police tow-in report, we learn many facts. The Illinois State Police (ISP) sought to have the tractor and trailer towed because of a "K 9 Alert." Other possible reasons for towing not checked on the report included accident, abandonment, recovery, seizure as evidence, and seizure for forfeiture. The vehicle was listed in fair and "running" condition. The report indicates that the tractor was locked and that the keys were not in it. Somehow, the ISP determined that Jimmie Powers was the tractor's owner, by registration. We do not know if they obtained this information directly from access to Secretary of State records or from license plate registration information provided by Jimmie Powers upon entry to the weigh station. In a box on the report inquiring of the reporting officer as to the subject vehicle's eligibility for release, the ISP officer checked "No." The balance of that section calls for an explanation of the hold status, which the officer left blank.
The ISP contacted Todd Bowers of Bowers Towing and Repair to tow the tractor and trailer away. Bowers towed both to his storage facility in Godfrey, Madison County, Illinois.
On June 15, 1997, Argosy sought, and was allowed, to remove its trailer from Bowers' facility. The record's only reference to a law enforcement "hold" applicable to the trailer is included on the receipt, stating, "Trailor [sic] was not on hold." How Bowers learned that the trailer was not being held by the ISP is not known. The only written report relative to the "hold" placed on June 13, 1997, is the above-discussed ISP tow-in report. Bowers' receipt relative to the Jacksons' tractor stated that the "[t]railer was released," from which it could be inferred that the trailer had in fact been released by the ISP. Upon release, Argosy was charged a $75 towing fee and three days of inside storage at $15 per day, for a total bill of $120.
At some point, the Jacksons learned that their truck was being stored by Bowers. They contacted Bowers in an effort to recover their vehicle, only to be told that the ISP maintained a hold on it and that Bowers could not release it to them. Bowers provided the Jacksons with no written verification of the hold. The Jacksons then contacted and met with an ISP officer in Litchfield to no avail. They also traveled with their attorney to meet with "police" in East St. Louis. This trip was also fruitless.
By late August 1997, the Jacksons still had no vehicle, and their attorney wrote a letter to the ISP with a copy to Bowers. The letter confirmed previous conversations with the ISP in which they advised the Jacksons and their attorney that the ISP maintained a hold on their vehicle. Enclosed with the letter was a copy of the truck's title indicating the Jacksons' ownership since October 1996, eight months prior to the ISP hold. The letter demanded the release of the truck within seven days and explained that otherwise the Jacksons would have no choice but to file suit seeking the vehicle's return.
The seven days passed and nothing transpired. At some point, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) got involved, and the Jacksons were advised that the FBI maintained a hold on the truck. The Jacksons and their attorney were never provided with written verification that the FBI had a hold on the truck. In fact, they were never provided with written verification that the State maintained a hold on the truck. In any event, the Jacksons were advised by the ISP that the ISP was no longer involved in the situation and that the hold now had to be released by the FBI.
The record does not reflect that the Jacksons and/or their attorney took any further formal or informal action to recover the tractor. In approximately July 1998, everyone consented to the tractor's release. The Jacksons, by their attorney, asked Bowers what they owed for towing and storage fees. The Jacksons were verbally informed by Bowers that to obtain their truck, they would need to pay almost $13,000 in towing and storage fees. Perhaps to confirm the amount in writing, on August 10, 1998, Bowers wrote to the Jacksons' attorney, indicating that the total bill as of that date was $1,284, substantially less than the amount quoted by phone. Bowers also stated that if arrangements were not made within the following 14 days, he would apply for title to the truck. As anyone would expect given the two quoted figures, the Jacksons brought $1,284 to Bowers, hoping to achieve the release of their truck. Once Bowers figured out his typographical error, he refused to release the vehicle without payment of the larger amount, $12,840.
The Jacksons filed a suit for replevin against Bowers on August 22, 1998. Very little discovery took place, and the case was set for a bench trial. The trial was held on December 17, 1998.
On that date, the trial court allowed very limited, informal testimony from the parties. In addition to the facts outlined earlier in this opinion, Bowers through his attorney indicated that he stored the Jacksons' tractor both inside and outside and that he occasionally started the engine. He carried insurance to cover any losses suffered during the time that the vehicle was in his care. His fee for towing the tractor was $150, and his daily storage fee was $30. He acknowledged that he had never stored a vehicle for as long as the time involved in this case. He was never paid by the ISP or anyone but the vehicle's owner. Oftentimes, after several months of storage, the vehicle owner came in and just signed the title to the vehicle over to Bowers. He has towed extensively for State and local law enforcement personnel since 1976. He believes that his storage fee of $30 per day is reasonable for the industry, stating that storage prices run generally from $25 to $75 per day. He was not asked to explain why his fees for towing and storing Argosy's trailer were exactly one-half of those charged the Jacksons and were less than the amounts that he testified were the industry ...