Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Wheel clamping: Driver's big win

Glen Vickery was awarded $550 after a disputes tribunal found his car had been illegally clamped in a privately-owned public carpark. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Glen Vickery was awarded $550 after a disputes tribunal found his car had been illegally clamped in a privately-owned public carpark. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Motorists are being urged to take on wheel clampers after a driver took a company to court over carpark signs - and won.

Glen Vickery, 41, was awarded $550 after a disputes tribunal found his car had been illegally clamped by NZ Wheel Clamping Company Ltd late last year.

Although the sum might seem small, the victory could be a precedent for other hard-done-by motorists.

The Automobile Association (AA) and Consumer NZ say clamping companies rely on people being cowered by confusion around laws governing the use of privately-owned public carparks.

AA spokesman Mark Stockdale said clamping and towing firms were "judge, jury, and executioner" because most people could not be bothered pursuing a disputes tribunal claim.

"It's high time that all parking companies are brought under some sort of national regulation."

They and Mr Vickery say parkers should challenge the parking and clamping companies in court, although NZ Wheel Clamping say they will appeal this ruling.

The Disputes Tribunal in the Papakura District Court found that it was unclear what the company meant when it warned that "unauthorised vehicles will be clamped or towed".

NZ Wheel Clamping would not disclose to the court the terms of its contract with the businesses which own the carpark, and so could not prove its right to clamp under contract.

"What I'm really aiming for here is to let as many of the public know where they stand with these guys," Mr Vickery said.

"If it gets out there enough, and enough people take them to court, it might be enough to make them fold and make some serious changes to their operations."

Mr Vickery and his partner had parked in a carpark belonging to Country Fried Chicken in Manurewa late last year and briefly left the carpark to pick up takeaways from a nearby shop.

But after they bought more food from Country Fried Chicken they found two clamps had been put on their vehicle and a NZ Wheel Clamping employee demanding $180.

"I'd seen him loitering around in the carpark when we arrived ... he wasn't wearing any kind of uniform or displayed ID.

"I read [the signs] about five or six times and I still didn't understand them. He said basically if you park in the carpark and then walk out ... then we'll clamp your car."

The chicken restaurant's manager intervened to confirm Mr Vickery was a genuine customer and asked for the clamps to be removed, but the clamper refused.

Mr Vickery eventually took matters into his own hands when the NZ Wheel Clamping employee left.

"I basically took the wheel off the car, then let the air down and pulled the clamp off. This all took about three hours."

He said when NZ Wheel Clamping threatened to charge him with tampering with its property after he returned the clamps he took them to the disputes tribunal.

Landowners may claim parkers accept the risk of being clamped if there are clear signs warning it will happen.

But the tribunal ruled that while the signs in the carpark were visible, they were also ambiguous.

"They expressly state 'unauthorised vehicles will be clamped or towed or both.' This leaves open the question of what is an authorised vehicle," the tribunal referee noted.

Sean Hika, group manager at NZ Wheel Clamping, said the company was planning to appeal the decision and therefore could not comment on Mr Vickery's case specifically.

"We felt we had a solid case and the weight of legal precedent on our side. I am under no illusion as to how the general public sees us - [as] low lifes and scumbags.

"Nobody will ever thank us for clamping their vehicle, and the truth of the matter is we wouldn't be doing what we do if there wasn't a real need."

Mr Hika said vehicles were clamped for parking in contravention of a particular carpark, and the conditions were clearly explained and signposted.

While some vehicles were mistakenly clamped while using a carpark legitimately, other people became customers of surrounding businesses only when they saw their car being clamped.

Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin supported government regulation and said at present it was up to a disputes tribunal to decipher confused and unclear parking laws.

"It is an area that causes so many problems. The clamping industry is meant to be self-regulating ... but self-regulating might mean something different to them than it does to us," she said.

"The other issue is the cost of getting unclamped, and whether the massive cost of that bears any resemblance to the actual costs of the clamping company."

Mr Stockdale said many problems stemmed from the fact there were two sets of rules - one if parking on street or council-owned parking buildings, in which case the rules were quite clear.

"But none of those rules apply if you're parking in a privately-owned public carpark. So the public don't actually know what the rules are and what the penalties are," he said.

"At the very least the AA wants a nationally consistent set of rules for all public carparks. Equally there should be some consistent guidelines around enforcement."

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