Wednesday, May 6, 2009
George Costanza: Consumer Protection Pioneer?
The automobile-repair industry is "a trade replete with frequent instances of unscrupulous conduct" in which, absent consumer protection laws, the status quo is "consumer exploitation."
Or so says Washington State, and now the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. The problems of mechanics ripping off customers is so widespread that "across the nation" states have passed laws requiring that consumers give "informed consent" to repair shops, says the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, in the recently-decided case of Kaskin v. John Lynch Chevrolet-Pontiac Sales, Inc.
In Kaskin, a customer sued the dealership repair shop for fixing his truck. He sued, even though the truck was fixed, because (he said) he never authorized the shop to repair the truck.
Kaskin had bought a truck and then, within 3300 miles of purchasing it, the engine began to knock. So he took it to the dealer, who did what Wisconsin law requires, and gave Kaskin a written estimate of the cost of repairs. That estimate was one cent; the dealer assumed the repairs would be covered by the warranty.
The dealership then discovered that the problem was that bad fuel had wrecked the engine injectors, and repaired those-- and charged Kaskin $5,000 for the service, which was not covered by the warranty.
Outraged that his repairs were $4,999.99 over the estimate, Kaskin did what all good American do: He paid and then sued... and lost, initially.
Kaskin had sued under a Wisconsin law that says consumers like him can sue dealers like John Lynch if the dealers have violated the law. In this case, the law that Kaskin said was violated was a law prohibiting a shop from repairing a car without authorization. Kaskin said that he hadn't authorized the shop to repair anything.
The shop said, though, that it didn't matter -- they'd fixed the problem and done a good job and were owed $5,000.
The trial court ruled against Kaskin, initially, and said that the dealer hadn't done anything, really, wrong. The damage to the truck wasn't caused by the dealer. But Kaskin appealed, and won -- kind of -- because the Wisconsin Court of Appeals said that the real issue is whether the dealership could charge Kaskin for repairs (allegedly) done without authorization. And the answer, the Court of Appeals said, is no, in Wisconsin, mechanics can't charge you for repairing your car unless you authorized the repairs.
The Court of Appeals then said that a trial needed to be held to determine whether Kaskin had authorized the repairs at all, and sent the whole thing back.
It's an important thing to consider, because that law is there to protect you, and me, and everyone else, from being taken advantage of by mechanics, who know a lot more than we do and who have both that knowledge and some critical other powers on their side.
Power number one, in Wisconsin, is that mechanics have a "mechanics lien" for repairs. If you take your car into a shop and they fix it up, they have a lien on your car until you pay... and because of that, they don't have to give you your car until you pay. So Kaskin couldn't, legally, get his car until he paid the $5,000. I don't know about you, but that would concern me -- being forced to cough up $5,000 I didn't know was coming.
Power number two is that nobody really understands cars. Take the sage wisdom of George Costanza, who opined about mechanics:
Oh, of course their tryin' to screw ya. No one know what they're talkin' about! It's like, "Oh, seems you need a new johnson rod." Oh! Yeah! Johnson rod! Well, get me one of those!
Or another wise mind, Dane Cook:
With any auto mechanic you’ve ever dealt with, as he's telling you what's supposedly wrong with your car, in your head, you're like... "this guys **** me big time."
Whatever they say, you just keep nodding. [The mechanics say] “Uh by the way, we had to replace the roof of your car, it was just peeling away in resentment of the rest of the car. And also we found a tiny unicorn in your exhaust and he was jumping and poking random holes in the exhaust, and he was *** in your filters as well, so we had to replace the entire unit. ” And you’re like “oh, ok, thank you very much. I didn’t know the roof was so angry at the rest of the vehicle and um… good god I’m glad you found that tiny mythological creature jumping around in there, 'cause I can't have holes being poked, not with a road trip coming up. So how much is that gonna cost? $7000 dollars? Yea that’s what I was gonna suggest. No really, I love to be in debt to the point of suicide."
The point being that it's sunk into pop culture now that we, as consumers, are getting ripped off when we go to the mechanic's. So laws like Wisconsin has, requiring that a customer be charged only for those repairs that he or she actually authorized, are important -- they're a protection against having your Johnson Rods replaced, or paying a charge to remove the tiny unicorn in your exhaust.
Wisconsin's law has some teeth, too -- if you sue your mechanic, and you win, you not only get the money back, but the loser will have to pay your attorney's fees, too.