One story I hear from time to time is that the dealership refuses to repair something under warranty. Their excuse? They say the consumer abused the vehicle and caused the problem. Luckily, the story doesn’t have to end there.
The typical scenario is this: a customer brings a car in for repair when something catastrophic has happened. An engine has blown, a transmission has failed, or something similar. And after dithering for a while on what to do, someone calls the consumer and tells them the news: The warranty claim is being denied.
The warrantor does have the right to deny a warranty claim under the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act if the claimed failure was the result of “unreasonable use” or “failure to provide reasonable and necessary maintenance.” What do you do at that point?
Once again, we have a BMW owner to thank for making headlines while sorting this out. This 1986 case revolves around a man named Thomas Waldock who bought himself a BMW 320i three years prior. It was warranted as such a car should be, but when he brought it in complaining that the engine failed, BMW refused repairs, saying the engine failure was the result of him over revving the engine.
Waldock “vehemently disputed” this contention and was left to file suit. I’ve always enjoyed this case (it was in one of the textbooks I used when teaching Consumer Law) for a couple reasons. One is that it’s from Alaska.
The other is that the court pointed out that if you are in this situation, it is not enough for the manufacturer to merely allege that you abused the vehicle. They must prove it. Of course, that will mean being in court as well but the burden of proof is on them.
So, as the court wisely noted: The consumer must prove that he had a warranted failure by a preponderance of the evidence. If the defendant wants to raise “abuse” as a defense, then it must prove abuse also by a preponderance of the evidence.
It’s not enough for them to just raise the defense and tell the consumer to disprove it.
Of course, Waldock’s award of $45,175.80 simply for his attorney’s fees and court costs caused BMW to bellow as well - but the court shot that down too. Don’t want to pay the other side’s expenses in a Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act case? You have two choices: Don’t go to court in the first place or, if you do, Don’t Lose. Otherwise, it might cost you.
So don’t just accept the claim denial if you are faced with one when you have a legitimate warranty claim. If nothing else, talk to a lawyer about your rights and what you might be able to accomplish in court.
And, as always, we must thank the BMW owners of America. Not only are they willing to litigate these cases but they have no problem taking them up on appeal—costs be damned!
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 24 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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