Can I be ticketed in a private parking lot?

There are many businesses that offer parking to their customers, but threaten to tow or fine people who refuse to pay a parking fee or who park in their lot but do not enter the store. When considering the legality of these parking arrangements, there are three principles that need to be kept in mind:

 

  1. The power to impose fines generally requires statutory authority.
  2. If you park on private property without the consent of the owner, you are probably trespassing.
  3. If you park in a parking lot with a sign that imposes terms on everyone who parks there, you may have entered into a contract with the parking lot owner.

Fines vs. Damages

If you receive a parking ticket from a provincial or municipal authority, it will likely impose a fine. That fine is usually based on a statute. One example of statutory authority is the University Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 468, which includes a provision, s. 27(2), that allows the University’s Board to regulate parking on university property, and impose penalties for breaches of the parking regulation, including towing and fines:

27 (2) … the board has the following powers:

(t) to regulate, prohibit and impose requirements in relation to the use of real property, buildings, structures and personal property of the university, including in respect of
(i) activities and events,
(ii) vehicle traffic and parking, including bicycles and other conveyances, and
(iii) pedestrian traffic;

(t.2) for the purposes of paragraphs (t) and (t.1), to provide for the removal, immobilization or impounding, and recovery, of any property associated with a contravention of a rule or other instrument made in the exercise of a power under this section;

(x.1) to impose and collect penalties, including fines, in relation to a contravention of a rule or other instrument made in the exercise of a power under this section;

However, if there is no statutory authority, then you are probably dealing with a claim for damages. There are two common bases for a claim for damages: trespass and breach of contract.

Trespass

While it is generally easy to prove trespass, it can be difficult to prove damages for trespass. The property owner can’t simply invent a number and say “you caused me $50 of damages”. There must be proof of damages. This requires a court action. Rather than pursuing a court action, most property owners will tow a vehicle and charge a fee for recovery. However, their right to tow a trespassing vehicle is subject to certain limits:

  • The vehicle must be causing harm to the property owner at the time it is towed, e.g. they cannot tow for prior unpaid damages: Barbour v. The University of British Columbia, 2009 BCSC 425 at para. 50.
  • A property owner can charge a reasonable fee for towing and storage and hold the vehicle until payment: Barbour at para. 53.

It is also worth noting that under s. 192 of the Motor Vehicle Act, a vehicle left on private property for more than 72 hours can be towed and the owner of the vehicle must pay all reasonable charges incurred in towing and storing the vehicle.

Breach of Contract

In some cases, the courts have ruled that a sign displayed in or near a parking lot can be considered a contractual offer. If that offer is accepted, then there is a legal contract that can be enforced in court. But it is not clear what constitutes acceptance of the offer. In some cases, the courts have held that such a contract can only be accepted by purchasing a ticket, but in other cases, the mere act of parking on private property has been found to constitute acceptance.

Assuming that there is a valid contract, when the property owner sends out a ticket, they are in fact making a claim for breach of contract. In order to enforce the contract, they would have to bring a court action. Unfortunately, there are no clear rules as to when such an action will succeed or fail. If you want a legal opinion as to the enforceability of a particular parking contract claim, you should consult a lawyer.

(written by Troy McLelan)

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