In 23 years of consumer protection practice, I have represented thousands of people. I am often asked, "What is the worst vehicle a client of yours has ever bought?" It's a toss-up between the car which could not be fixed despite 30 repair attempts and the vehicle which would catch fire each time it was driven over 50 miles.
I practice lemon law in Michigan which means I meet a lot of people who have bought defective products. While the bulk of the products are cars, I have represented many people who have bought other dud products. Defective ATVs, watercraft, sewing machines, and RVs. In fact, the flammable vehicle I mentioned above was an RV. But first, the 30-visit car.
My client, who I'll call "Ron," bought a new car. The first time it rained, water poured in someplace at the base of the windshield and soaked the carpeting. He brought it to the selling dealer who had the car for the afternoon and then returned it to him. They told him it was fixed. He took the car and was happy until the next time it rained. Same thing: water poured in behind the dashboard, again soaking the carpeting. This time he did not catch it right away and when he got in the car, there was several inches of standing water on the floor. To drive the car to the dealer, he had to have his feet in the water which sloshed around as he drove.
The dealer had the car for a few days and gave it back to him. Ron was a very friendly guy and the dealer was very nice to him. When he would drop his car off the salesman who sold him the car would often find him and sit and drink coffee with him.The dealer never denied there was a leak but they also never found anything wrong with the car - other than the standing water in the passenger compartment.
The next time it rained there was several inches of standing water. Eventually, Ron took the car to the same dealer more than THIRTY (30) times for the water leak. When he came to my office he showed me the stack of repair orders. I asked him why he had not come in 26 visits earlier and he told me that the dealer had always been nice to him and he thought they were honestly trying to help him. He didn't want to have to sue them.
But we did have to sue them. During the litigation, an expert from the manufacturer demanded to inspect the car to see this "leak that couldn't be fixed." I was there. He put a garden hose on the roof of the car and turned on the water. A moment later, water was running into the car and splashing over the pedals. The rep climbed around the car – with the water turned off – and then told me that there was a piece missing. This was a few years ago and I do not remember the name of the piece but it was something which should have been installed at the factory during assembly and could not be easily installed now. The rep said he had never seen a car without one and had no idea how the piece could have been left out. I have no idea if what he told me was true but he said the leak was unfixable. I have always wondered if the dealership people had known this all along or if they were truly baffled by the leak.
So, Ron wins when it comes to the most failed repair attempts in my office – and also for being the longest-suffering nice guy in the world – but the most severe defect I have seen was my client with the flammable RV. Let's call him Mike. Mike bought a very expensive RV. The first time he took it on a trip he saw smoke issuing from the rear of the RV. He went back and could not see anything burning so he carefully took it to a dealer. The dealer found a leaking axle seal and replaced it. The next time he drove it a significant distance, he again saw smoke coming from the rear axle. He stopped and then eventually took it for service. Axle seals again.
Long story shortened: each time Mike took the RV for a drive of more than 50 miles or so, the rear axle would begin smoking. Each time he took it for repair, the dealer would replace the axle seals. It doesn't take a genius to realize that the seals weren't causing the problem. But I digress. No one offered Mike anything other than to keep replacing the seals each time the axle began smoking. And he never got to drive the RV successfully to where he planned to go – ever.
As with Ron, litigation ensued and eventually a resolution was reached. Mike also rid himself of the vehicle as you might imagine. So, those two cases are the ones I always think of when asked, "What is the worst vehicle a client of yours has ever bought?" In my mind, it's a tie. The leak that could not be fixed or the RV that wouldn't stop burning. And yes, if we could have combined the two defects, we may have been able to drive the RV in the rain and get the leak to extinguish the burning axle.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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