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How to Bring a Small Claims Case over a Car

Car issues are a common source of litigation in small claims court. Being a mechanical object with numerous moving parts, cars don’t always behave as they should, even if they’ve been properly repaired. Car repairs and issues that arise after buying a car are the most common automotive reasons for driving to court.

Lemon laws

If your new or “previously owned” — a fancy term for used — car breaks down the minute you drive away, and the seller refuses to fix it, or if your new or pre-owned vehicle keeps breaking even after being repaired, you can often take advantage of so-called lemon laws to resolve your case outside of court.

Lemon laws require the dealer to take the vehicle back and refund the purchase price of the vehicle if the car cannot be repaired after a certain number of attempts by the dealer. In effect, these laws establish a warranty process if certain problems with the vehicle arise that the dealer is supposed to correct and can’t — or won’t.

Many people are unaware of this process. They don’t utilize it and instead come to court with the dispute. But if you buy a 1967 Chevy Nova with 300,000 miles on it held together by baling wire and duct tape, don’t expect the law to protect you.

Your state’s lemon law may not only give you redress outside the court system, but may also allow you to recover reasonable attorney’s fees if you’re successful, making legal representation more attractive to your cause than small clams court.

New cars sold by a registered car dealer, as well as used cars with less than a certain amount of mileage sold by a dealer, are covered by lemon laws in many states.

How to seek redress on repairs

An even more common case filed in court occurs when you claim the repair shop didn’t fix your car properly.

These cases aren’t always easy to prove, especially with older cars. These cases usually arise on vehicles that are about ten years old or have mileage of over 100,000 miles. Proving the defendant did something wrong on vehicles of that age and mileage is a difficult task. You may need an expert to testify that the defendant either failed to diagnose the problem or improperly treated the problem.

Repair shops are often licensed by the state or the county, so check them out before taking your baby in.

In order to prevail, you must establish that the current problem is the same one for which you brought the car in for repairs earlier. So, if the initial problem was the transmission, and the repair shop repairs the transmission, you have to establish that the reason the car is not functioning properly is that the defendant failed to properly repair the transmission.

If the problem now is that the alternator is not working, it doesn’t mean that the defendant either failed to repair the transmission properly or that the transmission was not the problem at the time the repair was made. Your burden is to prove that the defendant failed to do the repair you contracted with him to fix.

You have to prove the defendant didn’t do the repair as agreed in order to get money back. Finding someone who would have charged less for the repairs after the fact doesn’t entitle you to a refund. If you overpay, that’s not something that law will remedy. And even more important, is the second guy doing the same repairs with the same parts as the first?

Another common car repair problem occurs if, after the fact, you go to court because you never authorized a particular repair on your car but the shop did it anyway and is now charging you for it.

Many states require that automobile repair shops get written authorization for the repair or that, if the repair is authorized on the telephone, that a notation is made on the estimate listing. Not that that actually proves that this was done, but it’s difficult to prove you didn’t authorize the repairs when the defendant produces a computer-generated estimate with your signature or the notation “authorized on the phone.”

To be sure you authorize only the repairs you want, either don’t sign anything that’s blank as to the cost and extent of the repairs, or don’t authorize repairs to be done over the phone. Have the estimate faxed to you, sign it, and send it back. This way you and the repair shop each have a copy.

Many shops assess storage charges for the days that the car sits on their property waiting for you to authorize the repair or remains at the repair shop after the repairs are completed.

In many states, if you don’t pick up your car, the repair shop has what is called a lien for the money. (A lien is a pledge of property along with the right to sell the property to satisfy an obligation to the person holding the property.) The repair shop can have your car sold by the sheriff or third party at auction to get the shop’s lien paid.

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