As a Lemon Law lawyer, my phone rings all day long with people calling me about car problems. Defective cars are always in the mix and sometimes the calls involve auto repairs. That is, people want to know what they can do when they have been wronged by an auto mechanic. And here is what mechanics have done to them.
Charging for unnecessary repairs. I often hear that a mechanic diagnosed a problem, repaired it and - surprise, surprise - the problem was still there. They then re-diagnose it as a different problem and repair that. Sometimes, this repeats as the mechanic conducts the Ship of Theseus paradox in real life.
Eventually, the mechanic repairs the original defect but charges the customer for all the repairs. As your gut is telling you, the mechanic shouldn’t charge the customer for the earlier, unnecessary repairs. In Michigan (and in many states) doing so is illegal. Not only can you file a lawsuit over it, it is a crime.
Misdiagnosing something that is not faulty. Sometimes to pad their bills, mechanics will tell a customer non-defective parts need to be replaced. Your brakes need to be resurfaced? They’ll tell you to get them replaced. Other parts on the car can be repaired? They’ll suggest replacement. Like unnecessary repairs, unneeded parts being sold to you is also illegal in Michigan and many other states.
Joyriding your car. This goes on more often than you want to know. I’ve represented clients whose cars were destroyed by repair shop joyriders after work had been performed. And other examples are in the headlines all the time. Does every mechanic joyride the car after a repair? No. But this is one of the things we are really learning more about with the advent of dash cameras. The problem is that if you catch the mechanic doing this and your car is undamaged, it is hard to get compensated for it.
Overcharging for parts or labor. Most shops have a simple markup on parts. They buy them wholesale, mark them up and sell them to you with the job. The problem is that few people know what an actual part should cost.
A few years ago I met a guy who showed me how his shop had its system set up to sell the customer the cheapest brand of something (say, a shock absorber) and bill them for the most expensive. Or, do you really know what a water pump for your vehicle ought to cost? With the internet, these things can be figured out much more easily. Can a shop legally charge you more for a water pump than you could buy it for on Amazon? Of course. But if they charge you $300 for a water pump that retails for $100 - you’ve been had.
As for labor, there are time and parts guides which describe how long a repair ought to take. That is, by a competent mechanic. Again, few people outside of the industry have any idea how long an operation on a vehicle ought to take a competent mechanic. If the operation should take 2.5 hours but the mechanic took five hours because he didn’t know what he was doing? Shouldn’t be charging you for that.
Since this stuff is knowable, ASK them before the job begins how long the job will take. As in, ask them to give you a written estimate of the repair time and the cost of the parts (this is required by law in Michigan; it is a good idea anywhere it is not the law).
Damaging your car while they have it. Besides the accidents while joyriding, I’ve heard of other stuff happening to customer cars while they are being “repaired.” Grease on the seats, mysterious dents in body panels. Parts left off the car. Tools left in the car (doesn’t damage the car but it does say something about the mechanic who worked on your car). Again, if it happened while they had your car, it’s on them.
Bonus: Stealing from your car. I’ve heard of all kinds of things being stolen from customer cars while the cars were in for service. Everything from change in the ashtray to a wallet from the car while the customer was talking to the service writer. Stereos being pried from dashboards. Or customers who find performance parts removed from their engines. Cool wheels often disappear. Shops often ask customers to file insurance claims on these. But - as you might guess - that’s not how this goes. The shop is on the hook since they had control and possession of your car. We’ve covered this before.
So, if you have been ripped off by a mechanic, consult an attorney. There are often remedies for the foregoing and they have nothing to do with you calling your insurance company. And if you want to avoid being ripped off in the first place, a wise man has done a podcast on the subject.
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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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