Did BYU student’s statements defame towing company?

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Update: According to Utah court records, University Parking Enforcement filed an order of Dismissal Without Prejudice on July 26, ending their action against BYU student Carl Prince. The original story is as follows:

Parking enforcement has been a hot-button topic in Provo for years. In a recent development, a BYU student is being sued for $500,000 by University Parking Enforcement, a towing company accusing him of defamation.

The conflict began last September when Carl Prince claimed UPE illegally towed his vehicle from Park Plaza Apartments’ parking lot. Prince’s parking spot — located between regular and motorcycle parking — was considered off-limits by apartment management but wasn’t marked as such, according to Prince.

“The spot had a yellow line across it, but to a driver it was practically invisible, and there wasn’t anything else to indicate I shouldn’t park there,” Prince said.

According to Provo City ordinances, off-limits parking spots must be clearly marked with conspicuous, well-placed signage. Prince said a sign wasn’t present and felt UPE shouldn’t have towed his vehicle for that reason.

Carl Prince
Prince’s vehicle was towed from this parking spot by UPE. The spot was missing a proper sign and other markings to indicate it was off-limits. (Carl Prince)

When he went to pick up his vehicle from the impound lot, Prince said a UPE employee refused to show him video evidence of the tow, which is required by Provo ordinances. Prince claims he sent a letter to UPE requesting a refund of the $175 towing fee and $200 to settle out of court for violating a city ordinance. According to Prince, UPE returned the towing fee but declined to pay him the requested settlement.

Prince filed a lawsuit against the towing company on October 27, accusing the company of withholding video evidence of the tow and illegally towing his vehicle. On January 12, a judge ruled in favor of Prince’s first claim and awarded him $262.50 in damages, but upheld that UPE had legally towed Prince’s car. Prince later appealed this decision on February 8, even though he won, claiming UPE had stated false information in court. The judge ruled in Prince’s favor on both counts following the appeals hearing, awarding him $1 for each violation plus cost, totaling $324.50, according to court records.

The lawsuit wasn’t about the money but was based on principle, according to Prince.

“If the only consequence for improperly immobilizing or towing a vehicle is simply having to return the money that wasn’t even theirs to begin with, then what incentive is there to follow the law?” Prince said. “This ‘oops, sorry’ attitude is precisely what enables and fosters predatory parking enforcement. There’s very little accountability.”

These screenshots show the number of Google reviews for UPE changing over time. (Carl Prince)

UPE then served Prince documents claiming it was suing him for defamation. UPE alleges Prince falsely said on a GoFundMe page that “hundreds” of Provo residents had negatively reviewed UPE online. UPE said this statement was knowingly false and claimed Prince’s page included hyperlinks that led to a Better Business Bureau and Yelp page, both of which total 23 reviews.

However, the first link on Prince’s GoFundMe, which no longer accepts donations, leads to a Google search for UPE, which also includes 248 reviews at the time of writing. Prince claims the total number of reviews is currently down from over 400.

UPE also claims Prince accused UPE of “predatory towing” and “towing cars for profit.” Prince stands by these statements.

In an interview with ABC4 Utah, Justin Heideman, an attorney representing UPE, claimed Prince is following UPE’s employees and speaking with other businesses about UPE, which Prince denies. Heideman has not responded to a request for comments for this article.

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi says she is aware of the lawsuit but is not planning on getting involved at this time. “I will follow (the situation) closely and if needs are, I will insert myself.”

UPE and its owner, Michael Lamont, are no strangers to the local court system. According to court documents, Lamont faced charges twice for unlawfully towing a vehicle. In 2008, the case was dismissed following a plea deal. In 2011, Lamont entered into a plea in abeyance, after which the charges were dropped.

UPE has been involved in 12 lawsuits — including their current action against Prince — since 2005, according to Utah court records. Of these cases, seven were dismissed, four were ruled against UPE, one in favor of UPE, and one case was decided with a stipulated agreement between both parties.

A Provo ordinance amendment aimed at curbing predatory towing practices passed in 2013, according to the Daily Herald. The current ordinance requires property owners to have visitor parking, an appeals process, bolder signage and a fee cap of $175 for tows and $60 for boots. Towing companies are also prohibited from initiating a tow without a request from a property owner.

Then-Mayor John Curtis said the change was aimed at removing a profit incentive for towing, as well as reducing punishment for minor parking infractions.

Lamont said the legislation was “unreasonable and inappropriate,” invalidated “over 300” of UPE’s contracts and “violates property owners’ constitutional rights,” according to a statement he made to Fox 13.

The Daily Universe reported in 2005 that a booting ordinance was left unenforced after Lamont expressed concern to city council attorney Neil Lindberg.

Defamation and social media

The lawsuit has already proven to be a hot topic of conversation among Provo residents. ABC4 Utah’s Facebook post regarding its story on the lawsuit includes over 180 comments. Many students have shared their opinion on UPE, which begs the question: What kind of statement could actually be considered defamation?

BYU professor and School of Communications Director Ed Carter said a defamation lawsuit often depends on the defendant’s ability to prove their reputation was negatively affected by the plaintiff’s statements.

“What kind of hard evidence does the plaintiff have to actually show?” Carter said. “They may have to have some surveys of the public, some kind of witness testimony or other hard evidence that shows people think less of them.”

An important factor in a UPE’s suit could include its reputation before the defaming statement was made, Carter said. “Their reputation was at a certain level already, then they have to show that somehow it was harmed. I think that’s challenging to do, but that isn’t conceivable they can’t do it,” he said.

Carter said free speech in the United States is generally more valued than compensating people for every reputational harm, although it is a legal right to defend oneself in court. “I don’t think it’s a positive thing that we sue each other every time someone says something about us we don’t like.”

Carter said negative social media commenters could also be subject to a lawsuit, but it’s often not beneficial to sue dozens of individual commenters. Carter also said Internet Service Providers and specific websites are insulated from legal action, despite hosting negative comments.

While there are often “real implications of reputational harm,” Carter said plaintiffs can often be better served spending their time and money working to improve their reputation. In a general case, he said, lawsuits and potential media coverage often result in an even more negative public image.

“If their concern is really ‘we want people to think good of us,’ then do something good in the community that would make people think good of you,” he said. “Free speech allows more speech in the public eye, so a press release, blog post or advertisement. … Oftentimes, there’s positive stuff you could do.”

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