The Toyota Corolla and the Supreme Court Stoush

Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 9 April 2015.
Michaela Whitbourn.

It is not every day that a 10-year-old Toyota Corolla has a starring role in a Supreme Court stoush, but one set of wheels has helped write the law after it was written off in a crash.

Supreme Court Justice Lucy McCallum, better known for her judgments in high-profile murder cases and defamation battles, was asked to decide whether a Sydney auto repairs business could withhold the keys to a 2004 Corolla until the owner or their insurer had paid towing and storage fees.

If it seems like the sort of rubber-burning battle that should be taken for a spin in the Local Court, a case raising similar issues went all the way to the NSW Court of Appeal in 2009. The Supreme Court decided the case should be decided by it to avoid a potentially lengthy appeals process. 

It was Christmas night, 2013, when the ill-fated Corolla was involved in a smash in Randwick. Within minutes of the accident, a tow truck had arrived at the scene - unsolicited.

The Corolla's owner agreed for it to be towed to Maroubra Automotive Refinishers, a repairs shop nominated by the tow tuck driver, and signed a form stating that if the shop was "not accessible at the time" the car would first be taken to a "holding yard" where storage fees applied after 72 hours.

The tow truck driver said the Corolla owner's insurer, NRMA, would pick up the tab and "you don't have to pay anything".

The repair shop was closed and the Corolla was towed first to the holding yard. By January 7, the NRMA had made arrangements for the car to be towed to the owner's chosen repairer - but the shop refused to hand over the car until the fees were paid.

The owners of the Corolla and a 2013 Mazda, towed away in similar circumstances, sued for detinue - the wrongful detention of goods. The case was launched on March 21 last year. 

Justice McCallum upheld the claim. She noted the cars' owners did not deal directly with the repair shop and no repair work was done, or requested to be done, on either car.

"Lest it be thought that an implied contractual obligation to pay reasonable storage fees arises upon delivery of a car to a particular repairer, the simple answer is that no repairer is obliged to accept delivery of a car towed to its premises," Justice McCallum said. "The decision to do so is a commercial one, presumably informed by the prospect of securing the relevant job."

In March this year she ordered the repair shop to pay damages of $2449 to the Corolla owner plus $600 in legal costs. The Mazda owner received slightly more.

The Corolla was eventually assessed by the NRMA as a "total loss".