Lawsuit Against College Student Inspires Bill Protecting Consumers' Freedom of Speech

A few months ago I wrote about a heated battle between a Kalamazoo college student, Justin Kurtz, and a towing company that towed his car away from an apartment parking lot. The main problem was that the student was not parked illegally in the parking lot—actually, he lived in the apartment complex attached to the lot. However, the towing company responsible for taking his car, T&J Towing, claimed that Kurtz didn’t have a permit. Kurtz, on the other hand, vehemently argues that the tow crew scraped his permit off his windshield to justify taking his car. However, after getting nowhere with the company and shelling out $118 to get his car back, Kurtz decided to strike back by creating a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing”. As a result of the Facebook page, T&J says it has lost half of its commercial towing accounts, including Kurtz’s apartment complex. Consequently, T&J has filed a $750,000 slander and libel lawsuit against Kurtz. Kurtz, an $8.50-an-hour store clerk, countersued T&J for violating his free speech rights and the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

The controversy has attracted the attention of at least one Michigan lawmaker who wants to pass legislation that would protect consumers from lawsuits like the one Kurtz faces. These so-called SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, are retaliatory legal actions designed to silence, intimidate or punish those who speak out against corporations or companies. Representative Kate Ebli, D-Monroe, wants to amend a pending measure, House Bill 5036, which would allow consumers to dismiss SLAPP lawsuits if they can prove that their were harassed or intimidated for speaking out about unfair business practices.

The original version of the bill was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee by a 10-0 vote in March. However, Elbi had it called back so that she can tweak the bill with the help of the Michigan Association for Justice. According to Elbi, the Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the measure again on July 21. As for Kurtz, he recently stated that he was pleased with the bill and hoped that its passage would help protect other consumers from lawsuits like the one filed against him. T&J Towing, on the other hand, thinks the proposal is a bad idea. Nevertheless, T&J currently has an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau of Western Michigan because of the large number of complaints and the company’s failure to respond.

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