SWANSON TOWING & RECOVERY, LLC et al.
WRECKER, INC., et al.
C. J., MILLER, P. J, and REESE, J.
1, Inc., and its owner, Stacy Richardson, (collectively,
"the plaintiffs") sued Swanson Towing &
Recovery, LLC; Nick Group, LLC; Sarah Cha; and Amanda
McCallister (collectively, "the defendants") for
tortious interference with business relations, libel, and
slander. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and the
trial court denied the motion, certifying its ruling for
immediate review. This Court granted the defendants'
application for interlocutory review, and this appeal
followed. Because the defendants were entitled to judgment as
a matter of law, we reverse the trial court's denial of
their summary judgment motion.
appeal from the grant of summary judgment this Court conducts
a de novo review of the evidence to determine whether there
is a genuine issue of material fact and whether the
undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the
nonmoving party, warrant judgment as a matter of
viewed, the relevant facts show that for several years, Steve
Richardson operated a towing company called Silent Night
Recovery and Transport, Inc., the sole business of which was
non-consensual towing. In 2007, pursuant to a consent
agreement with Silent Night, the Public Service Commission
("the PSC") revoked Silent Night's permit to
conduct non-consensual towing, imposed a fine against Silent
Night, and ordered it to pay restitution to consumers. In a
press release, the PSC noted that "Silent Night had
violated state law and Commission rules, including providing
false business addresses, improper signage, failing to file
proof of proper insurance with the Commission[, ] and
exceeding the maximum tariff rate approved by the
the same time, in January 2007, Steve's wife, Stacy
Richardson, incorporated her own towing company, Wrecker 1.
Steve worked for Wrecker 1, advised Stacy with respect to the
business, and advocated for the company with government
entities including the PSC. Initially, Wrecker 1 only
provided consensual towing services - towing requested by the
vehicle's owner. In 2009, however, Stacy, with assistance
from Steve, sought to be added to Henry County's list of
approved towing services for non-consensual tows requested by
public officials. In May 2011, Wrecker 1 was added to the
County's approved list. At that time, only two other
companies were on the list, one of which was
to the defendants, the addition of Wrecker 1 to the County
list of approved wreckers was financially devastating. Both
Sarah Cha, the owner of Swanson, and Amanda McCallister, a
long-term employee of the company, sent correspondence to the
County manager and various County commissioners to complain
about the financial hardship. Several of the messages also
conveyed complaints received about Wrecker 1's business
integrity and billing habits. In one, McCallister wrote
"I don't see how Wrecker 1 can even call themselves
an upstanding company." In another, she wrote that
has no morals [and] no regard for the Citizens of Henry
County. . . . [Wrecker 1] used to be under the name
"Silent Knight [sic] Towing and got in HOT water with
the [PSC] . . . so they changed their name to Wrecker 1. . .
. [Wrecker 1] continue[s] to overcharge on 95% of their
calls. . . . We would think that the people [and] officials
of Henry County would want valuable wrecker services dealing
with their citizens . . . not a mean, vulgar, demeaning
crook like Steve [and] Stacy Richardson of Wrecker 1.
Cha also sent letters stating that Wrecker 1 and Silent Night
were the same company.
point, Swanson heard from a GEICO insurance adjuster, Summer
Smith, regarding complaints of over-charging by Wrecker 1.
Swanson relayed those complaints to the County and encouraged
Smith to contact the County directly. Smith did so; she also
had a meeting with the city manager. In February 2012, the
County held a due cause hearing regarding the complaints.
None of the defendants were present at the hearing, and Stacy
concedes that the defendants had "[nothing] to do with
the evidence . . . provided at the hearing." In April
2012, based upon evidence introduced at the hearing, the
County suspended Wrecker 1 from towing for 90 days after
concluding that it had overcharged customers on 24 occasions.
to the defendants' complaints, the Wrecker Services
Committee received a complaint from Lee Hamlin regarding a
claim of overcharging. In 2012, a truck owned by Hamlin was
in an accident with a truck owned by Penske, and Wrecker 1
cleared Hamlin's truck from the roadway; Hamlin offered
to pay for services rendered in moving the truck to the
shoulder, but requested that Wrecker 1 not tow the truck from
the scene. Wrecker 1 not only disregarded Hamlin's
request, it also charged him $11, 647.75 for the tow.
August 28, 2012, the Wrecking Service Committee conducted a
due cause hearing on Hamlin's complaint. Although Wrecker
1 received notice of the hearing, no one from the company
attended the hearing. The Committee issued a written ruling
finding that Wrecker 1 had overcharged Hamlin by $7,
822.75. Although Penske did not contest its bill,
the Committee also reviewed Wrecker 1's $13, 965 invoice
to Penske and found that Wrecker 1 over-charged Penske by
$13, 055. Based upon the finding of overcharges to Penske and
Hamlin, falsification of invoices, and the evidence
supporting Wrecker 1's prior suspension, the Committee
permanently removed Wrecker 1 from its list of authorized
same day as the hearing, Wrecker 1 and Stacy Richardson filed
suit against the Swanson defendants, alleging a claim for
tortious interference with business relations. Specifically,
the plaintiffs alleged that Swanson was responsible for
Wrecker 1's removal from the County's list of
authorized wreckers. In September 2012, the plaintiffs
amended the complaint to include claims for libel and slander
based upon comments made by Cha and McCallister that
allegedly soiled the plaintiffs' reputations and linked
Wrecker 1, erroneously, with Silent Night. Swanson moved for
summary judgment on all three claims, and the trial court
denied the motion. This appeal followed.
Tortious interference with business relations.
defendants argue that the trial court erred by denying their
motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiffs' claim
of tortious interference with business relations. We agree.
"Tortious interference claims, whether asserting
interference with contractual relations, business relations,
or potential business relations, share certain common
essential elements: (1) improper action or wrongful conduct
by the defendant[s] without privilege; (2) the defendant[s]
acted purposely and with malice with the intent to injure;
(3) the defendant[s] induced a breach of contractual
obligations or caused a party or third parties to discontinue
or fail to enter into an anticipated business ...