Recently, the Illinois Appellate Court published its 2019 decision in Lopez v. Rendered Servs., Inc., 2019 IL App (1st) 181869. Lopez serves as a great refresher on the American Rule regarding attorney fees and statutory fee-shifting provisions in Illinois.

In Lopez, the plaintiff parked his car in a private parking lot. His car was towed, and he had to pay to have it released and to repair the damage caused during the tow.

The plaintiff sued the tow company and its driver (and not the lot owner) for unlawful removal of his car pursuant to the Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/4-203(f)(3)). After winning at a bench trial, he filed his fee petition pursuant to the fee-shifting provision of the same statute (id. § 4-203(f)(10)). The trial court granted his petition, but the appellate court reversed.

In its analysis, the appellate court noted that Illinois follows the American Rule, which provides that absent statutory authority (or contractual language) to the contrary, each party to litigation must bear its own attorney fees and costs. Statutes permitting the recovery of attorney fees are thus in derogation of the common law and must be strictly construed.

Turning to the language of the fee-shifting provision in the Vehicle Code, the court recognized that the statute permits fees only "[w]hen an authorized person improperly causes a motor vehicle to be removed." The court determined that "an authorized person" referred to "the owner or lessor of privately owned real property." Because fees may be awarded only against the "authorized person" who "causes" the vehicle to be towed, and a towing company is not such an "authorized person," the fee provision could not be enforced against the defendants, a tow company and its agent.

Take away: Perhaps your car was towed recently, and now you know who to sue. But more generally, Lopez is a good reminder of the American Rule and the narrow approach Illinois courts will take in interpreting statutory fee-shifting provisions. Lawyers should analyze these provisions carefully when deciding who to sue or when defending against claims for attorney fees.