On Christmas Day a couple years back I got a phone call from my brother. His truck’s transmission had just failed and he was pretty sure it was the fault of the dealer. He was curious what advice I had for him since his truck was a long way out of warranty.
He told me he was headed to visit our other brother, who lived 225 miles away. On his way out, he had stopped at the dealer where he had bought the truck and gotten an oil change. He had all of his maintenance done at the dealer and was very good about oil changes. While the tech was under the 2006 GMC Sierra 1500, he had greased all of the various fittings under the front end.
After, as Dave headed down the road, he got 125 miles when he noticed the RPMs climbing unnaturally. He pulled off the road and looked under the truck: There was trans fluid leaking from one of the lines. The location of the leak was odd. It was in a place which lent itself to the idea that the tech had hit or bumped it when he was greasing the front end of the truck.
Dave called Rick - who was 100 miles away - and he brought tools. They spliced a new piece of line to fix the break and then refilled the trans.
Unfortunately, that did not fix the problem. The truck would only shift into first and second gears. Dave limped the truck home on backroads which wasn’t hard to do since it was Christmas day.
When he called me, he asked me my advice. I have sued many dealers and repair shops and know the laws in Michigan which cover a situation like this. If he could prove the tech had damaged the trans line then he could theoretically recover damages from them for it. Proving it would be the hard part.
However, Dave had one pretty good piece of leverage here. He had bought his truck and had all of its service done at one dealer. The dealer is in a fairly small town and cannot afford to lose customers like Dave. I told him to go in and talk to the service manager. Explain what happened and what he thought had gone wrong and ask what they can do for him.
I emphasized: Don’t scream and yell, don’t make threats. (This is good advice for everyone, by the way. You can always scream and yell later. Why not try the nice way first?) Explain how you have been happy with their sales and service until now and you would like to remain a customer. Keep in mind that the dealer has some room to work with here: They make money marking up the prices on labor and parts. Presumably, if they want to, they can cut their margins in your favor. They just need to see that it is to their benefit to do so.
Dave did this and said that the shop was kind of quiet that day to begin with, perhaps because of the holidays. The manager seemed to appreciate the fact that Dave had addressed this in a nice manner. He showed Dave the cost of a new transmission, parts and labor. For his truck, it was $4,000. He offered to split the cost down the middle.
Dave accepted the offer. Could he have sued and gotten more? Hard to say. If he could have proven that the broken line was caused by the tech, then he could have. But you never know if you will win at trial. I assume the tech would swear up and down he never hit the line. And the truck had 95,000 miles on it at the time. Maybe the line was just rotted? This is Michigan, after all.
There are a couple important points to learn here. One is that if your little brother is an attorney, call him and ask his advice. The second is that not every solution involves yelling, threats or lawsuits. Sometimes it pays to be polite and see where that can get you.
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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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