Authored by: Marcia M. Ernst
In the case of RCC Wesley Chapel Crossing, LLC et al. v. Forrest Allen et al., the Georgia Supreme Court addressed whether a common-law right exists to allow a private property owner to boot a vehicle parked on its property without permission. Booting is the practice of immobilizing a vehicle until the owner pays to have the immobilization device removed.
Plaintiff sued the owner-operator of a parking lot and the commercial tenants of the connected shopping center claiming negligence, premises liability, false imprisonment, conversion, and violation of the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The suit alleged that after Plaintiff parked in the shopping center lot his vehicle was immobilized by the placement of a boot on one of the tires of his vehicle and that he was required to pay $650 to have the boot removed.
Defendants argued that under common law – the body of law derived from judicial decisions rather than statutes – private property owners are permitted to immobilize vehicles trespassing on their property. They asserted that the common-law right to remove trespassing property encompasses a right to immobilize trespassing vehicles.
Defendants also asserted that the common-law doctrine of “distress damage feasant,” which goes back hundreds of years, allows property owners to engage in the self-help remedy of impounding another person’s property when it is wrongfully on their land. The doctrine of distress damage feasant recognizes a landowner’s right to impound trespassing livestock that wanders onto his land and causes actual damage and to hold it as security until the animal’s owner is ascertained and compensates the landowner for his damage.
The unanimous Georgia Supreme Court flatly rejected these arguments. It ruled that neither the right to remove trespassing property nor the doctrine of distress damage feasant supports the vehicle booting practice of Defendants.
The Court explained that the act of immobilizing a trespassing vehicle stands in sharp contrast to the common-law authority to remove trespassing chattel from a property because immobilizing the chattel perpetuates the trespass. Further, the Court noted that this common law remedy has been displaced, in part, by Georgia’s towing statute, which provides specific guidelines for the removal and impoundment of vehicles, but which says nothing about booting cars. See O.C.G.A. § 44-1-13.
The Court held that the doctrine of distress damage feasant did not apply to the facts of the case at hand. Defendants cited no authority where a court applied the distress damage feasant doctrine to anything other than livestock or where a court held that a landowner has a common-law right to impound and hold a chattel, such as a vehicle, whose owner is easily discoverable. Indeed, the Court concluded there is no legal authority recognizing a common-law right to immobilize unauthorized vehicles located on private property and hold them against the owner’s will until payment is received. The Court further noted that even if distress damage feasant were to apply to allow the vehicle immobilization practice at issue, the Defendants’ claim would fail because the doctrine requires a trespass and proof of actual damages and the record did not support any damages suffered by Defendants.
For any booting to occur on private property in Georgia, there must be a statute or ordinance allowing it. Indeed, the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals had ruled below that there is no right to immobilize a vehicle absent an enabling statute or ordinance. Some municipalities in Georgia have ordinances that specifically allow the booting of unauthorized vehicles, but that was not the situation presented in this case. And, as noted above, although Georgia law does allow for unauthorized vehicles to be towed and impounded under certain circumstances, that was not what the Defendants did here.