A company in San Diego co-founded by a former Marine has been scooping up the abandoned scooters that litter city streets owned by the startups Bird and Lime for months, giving some of them back to Bird in November in exchange for more than $40,000. Bird and Lime have since called the company’s activities “ransom,” and a legal battle has begun.
Both scooter-rental startups sued the company—known as Scooter Removal—and its founders last month, arguing that the company’s removal of scooters was in many cases illegal. The civil complaints—both filed in California Superior Court in San Diego, Lime’s on March 19 and Bird’s a day later—make for good reading, and describe a pattern of scooter confiscations that the companies say started last summer.
The dispute highlights a larger tension in tech, in that it lays bare some pretty fundamental questions about Silicon Valley, i.e. are so-called mobility companies actually helping us solve some of our larger transportation issues? Or is really what we have at the end of the day just a bunch of new trash?
Scooter Removal certainly thinks the latter. Workers from the company, Bird and Lime say, “lay in wait” for tourists and other scooter riders to get off the scooters in San Diego, before “swooping in” and loading them onto a truck, taking them to storage and holding them for “ransom.”Bird and Lime also say that a lot of scooters are taken from public property, and against normal procedures tow trucks might use when impounding a vehicle.
A court might ultimately decide that, but Scooter Removal, for its part, says on its website that the removals are a noble cause, a reaction to scooters’ increasing presence—some say littering—across the city. Bird and Lime say that Scooter Removal has another less-than-altruistic motive: money.
Bird paid around $40,000 for the release of 1,800 scooters in November, and the company says in the suits that Scooter Removal currently has around 2,500 of Bird scooters and 1,300 Lime scooters in its possession and is demanding tens of thousands of dollars for their return.
More specifically, the Bird suit says the price is $30 per scooter for their release, not including “storage” fees that tally up by the day. (Bird says its scooters are worth around $950 each.) And the battle between Bird, Lime, and Scooter Removal has apparently been going on for awhile. One passage in Lime’s lawsuit—a similar version of which appears in Bird’s—suggests that the scooter startups did some private surveillance.
For example, in one instance, a bellboy/valet from a hotel nearby The Promenade was observed in a back alley placing scooters in The Promenade Garage. That bellboy/valet had his own key to unlock The Promenade Garage. Borelli was later observed conversing with that bellboy/valet. Borelli subsequently picked up the scooters and took them away in a truck that had a magnetic business sign on its side door bearing the following: “Scooter Removal, LLC - A Free Service for Property and Business Owners - Call Us Today! 858-262-1912 www.scootscoop.com.” Borelli was also observed handing out business cards to two males in The Promenade boardwalk area.
The battle has not been limited to the court room; during one confrontation at a facility Lime says violates impound procedure, Scooter Removal co-founder John Heinkel threatened a Lime rep by suggesting he was armed, according to Lime’s suit.
On at least one occasion, in response to Lime representatives’ in-person request for the unconditional release of Lime Vehicles from The Promenade Garage since the vehicles had not yet been transported to the Talon Storage Facility, [Scooter Removal co-founder John Heinkel] responded with hostility and threatened the Lime representatives, asserting he was carrying a gun.
All of this also, according to the suits, has the added benefit of steering business to Boardwalk Electric, a bike rental company in part run by Dan Borelli, one of the founders of Scooter Removal also named in the suit.
Not surprisingly, an alleged gun, “ransom,” and a possible conflict of interest isn’t the tale Scooter Removal tells on its website. No, Heinkel and Borelli are just two guys “fighting back” against Big Scooter:
As long as armies of electric scooters are allowed to charge people’s credit cards, most of the scooter companies could care less where they roam, or how they are operated. It is a “leave-it-anywhere,” “impose-on-everyone” philosophy of operating a business that unfortunately disrespects public safety and the private property rights of others.
Two guys started fighting back. They obtained authorizations from property owners to remove unwanted scooters from private property. They cleaned up scooter company mess by removing thousands of scooters that were trespassing and dumped on private property. Afterwards, they notified the appropriate billion-dollar companies to come pick up their scooters, and pay a minimal fee for saving and safely storing their products. They asked the companies to modify their apps to recognize the rights of property ownership, take back their product and stop allowing unwanted scooters on designated private property where “no trespassing” signs had been posted.
Borelli and his co-founder, John Heinkel, also seem to have seen a legal battle forthcoming, while attempting to rally people to their cause:
Instead of respecting the community, private property rights and public safety, several of the companies have refused to pay and instead threatened legal action against these two hard working guys.
They want to continue the fight and provide the free service to San Diego and beyond. They are looking for private citizens to step up and donate to their fund so they can expand their territory, finish the app to report scooters and respond appropriately in court if necessary.
I don’t want to be unsympathetic to Heinkel and Borelli here; scooters’ actual utility is still widely up for debate, and it’s true that they are often discarded en masse onto public and private spaces, creating unsightliness and urban absurdity, to say the least. I also certainly don’t have much sympathy for Big Scooter, who can afford more and better efforts to mitigate the mess, and also have the money to bankroll a lawsuit against two relatively small-time operators demanding what is surely, for Bird and Lime, chump change.
Still, I’m struck by the apparent dissonance between how Heinkel and Borelli describe their efforts and what it looks like in reality, if not a pure shakedown then something approaching that. What is also clear is that everyone seems to understand the legal stakes, like in Scooter Removal’s appeal for money to help it fight a potential legal battle and, surely, Bird and Lime.
There’s also this bit from Lime’s lawsuit:
Lime repeatedly told Defendants their wrongful towing and impound of Lime Vehicles violates the Vehicle Code. Nonetheless, Defendants continue their illegal actions. In fact, Heinkel admitted to Lime multiple times that not only is he aware Defendants are not complying with the Vehicle Code, but that Defendants refuse to do so absent a court order.
Beyond all that there’s a layer of deception. That $40,000 payment, for example, surprised me in some ways, because companies like Bird and Lime with proper sets of accountants, lawyers and what-not don’t part with their money very easily. Or at least not without doing some due diligence, usually.
Instead, in this case, Bird essentially says that it got snookered, and gave up the money based on Scooter Removal’s word alone. (Talon is tied to Scooter Removal and also being sued.)
Talon represented that these impounds were lawful, that all scooters were found and impounded from Promenade private property—and not any other location—and that Talon followed proper procedures for the scooters’ impoundment. Talon requested hundreds of dollars per scooter for retrieval. Relying on Talon’s representations that the scooters were taken from the Promenade, and with proper authorization, Bird agreed to pay Talon over $40,000 in exchange for the scooters’ release. Bird subsequently learned of Defendants’ actual scheme and realized it had been induced to make this payment under false pretenses.
So far, Scooter Removal has raised $865 of their $100,000 goal on a GoFundMe campaign, but have not yet responded in court, though docket updates indicate they’ve been served with the suits. The next hearings in the case aren’t scheduled until November.
I emailed lawyers for Bird, Lime, and Scooter Removal for comment, but only Bird has gotten back to me so far with this statement:
The people of San Diego are being bamboozled by a local tow company scheme. Scooter Removal aka ScootScoop, orchestrated by Talon Auto Adjusters, is unlawfully impounding micro-mobility devices and demanding a ransom for their return. We are seeking an immediate end to their scheme as the company is robbing people of the environmentally friendly scooter options they’ve come to rely upon each day to get to and from work, as well as to local businesses.
I will update this story if I hear from Lime or Scooter Removal.
The details of this case seemed designed to frustrate the formation of a clean, correct take. On one hand, I’m for vigilantes taking on Big Scooter and cleaning up our streets. On the other hand, these particular vigilantes seem slightly bad at it, like the fake Batmans in the beginning of The Dark Knight. What I know for sure is that scooters are here to stay, and Bird and Lime clearly need to find a way to keep them from becoming a nuisance, if they’re inspiring efforts like Scooter Removal’s.
I mean, look at this shit, from Comic-Con in San Diego over the summer:
Both lawsuits are embedded below.