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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

MI Towing Battle Spurs Legislation

Here's the continuing story from the Detroit Free Press:
A legal brawl between a Kalamazoo college student and a towing company has caught the attention of a Michigan lawmaker who wants to amend pending legislation to protect consumers from so-called SLAPP lawsuits.

SLAPP suits -- Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation -- are retaliatory legal actions designed to silence, intimidate or punish those who have used public forums to exhort government into action.

"If I want to protest what a store is doing in my neighborhood, I have every right to do that within the confines of the law and free speech," said state Rep. Kate Ebli, D-Monroe. "For the company to slap a lawsuit on me with an army of lawyers is unfair."

Ebli said she wants to amend a pending measure, House Bill 5036, which would allow consumers to ask judges to dismiss such lawsuits if they can prove they were designed to harass and intimidate them for speaking out about unfair business practices. The initial bill was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee by a 10-0 vote in March.

Ebli had it called back so she can tweak the bill with the help of the Michigan Association for Justice, the state trial lawyers group and others. Her changes would extend the protection to people who speak out on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

She said the Judiciary Committee is to take up the measure July 21.

The changes were prompted by a $750,000 libel lawsuit T&J towing filed earlier this year against Western Michigan University student Justin Kurtz, who started a Facebook page to protest the towing of his car in January from his apartment complex.

Kurtz says the company removed his parking sticker from his window to justify the tow. His Facebook page created an Internet sensation and attracted more than 14,000 friends -- many of whom say they, too, were victimized by the company.

Kurtz said he is happy the Legislature is considering the bill: "It's a great idea. People should be protected from lawsuits like the one filed against me."

The Better Business Bureau of Western Michigan gives T&J an F-rating because of a large number of complaints and its failure to respond.

The towing company's lawyer, Richard Burnham of Paw Paw, said the proposal is a bad idea.

"I'm really disappointed to hear about such a knee-jerk response," Burnham said. "She doesn't even understand who the wrongdoer here actually is," he said of Ebli.

Burnham said the towing company has lost more than 50% of its customers since Kurtz created the Facebook page.

Ebli said she plans to invite Kurtz and his lawyer, Dani Liblang of Birmingham, to testify about the amendment at the Judiciary Committee hearing.

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