In what will surely go down in history as one of the most Galaxy Brain court rulings of all time, a Michigan appeals court determined that a tire rotation does not, in fact, include tightening the lug nuts.
It is a ruling that not only defies common sense but has potentially broad ramifications for Michigan car owners who may find it much harder to sue mechanics for doing unspeakably dumb things, such as not making sure the damn tires stay on the car.
In October 2013, Samuel Anaya and Doris Myricks took their car home from a dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan after having some basic repairs and maintenance conducted, including a tire rotation. About two blocks from the dealership, the left front wheel came off, causing the car to skid into a curb. Turns out, the mechanic did not tighten the lug nuts.
Anaya, who sustained lower back and leg injuries in the crash, sued the dealership and the mechanic for negligence.
In a typical legal maneuver, Anaya’s attorney invoked the Motor Vehicle Service and Repair Act (MVSRA), a 1974 law that protects car owners against “unfair and deceptive practices” by mechanics in addition to the charge of negligence. They did so because a defendant that violates the MVSRA must not only pay damages, but also the plaintiff’s legal and court fees. In cases involved screwed up oil changes or tire rotations, the legal fees can often be far higher than the damages.
In the initial trial, the court instructed the jury that the dealer and the mechanic had, in fact, violated the MVSRA. The mechanic admitted he forgot to tighten the lug nuts, the jury awarded $40,000 in damages to Anaya, and the judge further ruled the dealership cover the $70,000 in attorney and legal fees during the multi-year court fight. The defendants appealed.
Now we get to the crazy part. The appeals court ruled that, in fact, the MVSRA had not been violated.
The MVSRA protects customers from, among other things, “charge for repairs that are in fact not performed.” So, the judges felt they needed to determine if the tire rotation was, in fact, performed.
This is how the ruling ended up with an entire section titled “INTERPRETATION OF THE WORD ‘PERFORM’,” which, I shit you not, is a bunch of judges looking up the word “perform” in the dictionary. They did so because the MVSRA does not define the word “perform” in the law itself.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever read an actual law, but typically, laws define a lot of words. So many words, in fact, that it often seems ridiculous that anyone could not know what such a basic English word means. But lawmakers do this to avoid confusion exactly like this one.
In this sense, the MVSRA is a pretty typical law. It begins with three pages of definitions, including such complex legal terms as Contract, Customer, Department, Estimate, Facility, Motor Vehicle, Person, Repair, and Warranty. Presumably, the Michigan legislature, in its infinite wisdom, believed the word “perform” to be sufficiently clear as to not warrant further explanation.
They were wrong.
The judges managed to reach the following conclusion about whether a tire rotation is “performed” if one does not tighten the lug nuts:
We conclude, under the plain language of MCL257.1307a, that defendants “performed” a tire rotation, albeit negligently...There is no support for the trial court’s determination that a tire rotation is not “performed” if a service person fails to sufficiently tighten the lug nuts on one tire.
Yes, that’s right. The judges ruled that a tire rotation does not include tightening the lug nuts. It only involves “remov[ing] the tires and replace them on different axles or sides of the vehicle.” It does not involve using a torque wrench to tighten the lug nuts, which the mechanic “forgot to do.” That is not a part of the tire rotation. Presumably, the judges also believe the doctor performed the open-heart surgery, albeit negligently, by not sewing the patient back up, or the chef performed the preparing of the meal, albeit negligently, by serving raw steak.
So, the judges ruled the MVSRA does not apply to this case.
Former Jalopnik contributor and Michigan attorney Steve Lehto, who has tried many MVSRA cases, laid out a few reasons why this ruling is, in his words, “the craziest case I have seen in Michigan” since he started recording videos for his Youtube channel in 2014, and one of the craziest he has ever come across in his home state.
For one, the ruling itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, “perform” definitions aside. The MVSRA is what’s called a remedial statute that is designed to protect consumers from, as the law itself says, “unfair or deceptive practices.” The MVSRA’s core function is to protect regular ol’ folks who don’t know crap about cars against mechanics who lie about what work they did; for example, by claiming to have performed a tune-up when they, in fact, did not.
But, as the phrase “unfair or deceptive practices” makes clear, it also covers “unfair” practices. The ruling dutifully quotes this phrase, but then skips over the “unfair” part and goes straight to examining the definition of the word “perform.”
Lehto believes they should have spent a little bit more time on the word “unfair,” and that doing so might have yielded a different ruling. After all, isn’t it quite unfair (unfair: 1. marked by injustice, partiality, or deception 2. not equitable in business dealings) that the tire on Anaya’s car fell off two blocks from the dealership because the mechanic didn’t tighten the lug nuts after a tire rotation?
On top of that, Lehto said remedial statutes are supposed to be interpreted by judges liberally to protect consumers as much as possible. Whatever else one believes about the whole is-re-attaching-the-tire-part-of-a-tire-rotation thing, it is undoubtedly the case that the court did not interpret the statute liberally hereby even asking this question, much less taking it seriously.
This puzzling ruling has potentially broad ramifications for car owners across the state of Michigan because of the precedent set. Based on this standard, an oil change, for example, is performed merely if the old oil is replaced with new oil. Taking out the drain plug, draining the oil, removing the oil filter, replacing the new filter, and replacing and tightening the drain plug is not, by this interpretation, one “performing” the oil change. Forget to tighten the drain plug causing the oil to leak everywhere? According to Lehto, “Every single one of those is now legal [under the MVSRA] according to the court of appeals.”
Surely one could still sue the mechanic on the grounds of negligence, right? Yes, Lehto said, the negligence path is still there. But, remember, the main benefit of invoking the MVSRA is to get the defendant to pay for the plaintiff’s attorney fees. And that is no small matter.
In the case in question, the jury awarded $40,000 in damages, including for the injuries sustained as a result of the crash. After that verdict, the plaintiff then asked the court, under the MVSRA, to make the defendant cover the attorney and court fees too. That award was for an additional $70,000, for a total verdict of $110,000.
The attorney and legal fees—which the defendant would have had to pay himself if not for the MVSRA’s application—was for more than the actual damages. And this was even in a case with injury; without the injury, the attorney fees would have been many multiples the damages.
As a result of all this, Lehto said he would no longer accept such cases because the finances simply don’t work. It would cost a plaintiff more to try the case than what they could reasonably expect to be awarded, and the defendants would likely be able to argue the MVSRA wouldn’t apply unless they literally forgot to change the oil to replace the engine with a new one.
What can Michigan do about this? There are two options: appeal the case and hope the state Supreme Court takes it up, or have the legislature clarify the MVSRA (perhaps they can define the word “perform”).
In the meantime, good luck suing an incompetent mechanic in Michigan.