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Watchdog: Mother says auto dealer sold daughter lemon

July 26, 2011 at 2:26 a.m.


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To submit questions, email watchdog@vicad.com, post them to the "Watchdog" blog or call Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza at 361-580-6519. No topic is off-limits.

An angry Victoria mother says a local used automobile dealer knowingly sold her daughter a lemon.

Now, the 41-year-old mother said she looks to recoup her daughter's $3,600 and ensure other customers avoid similar snafus.

Jennifer Meaux said her daughter, who recently graduated from Cuero High School, had saved babysitting money to buy a car. The graduate settled for a 2000 Volvo.

Within days after the purchase, however, the car's transmission slipped and then the head gasket malfunctioned, sidelining the Volvo and leaving the 17-year-old stranded on separate occasions.

When Meaux complained to the dealer, the businessman told her to take a hike, she said.

"Oh, I am not done," Meaux said. "If I have to park that car across the dealer's street and use a sign that says, 'Do not buy from this place,' I will. He put my daughter in huge danger."

The Advocate opts here to leave the dealer unnamed. It remains unclear if the dealer is guilty of legal wrongdoing, and state regulators say, based on Meaux's account, it appears unlikely.

Meaux plans to file a notice with the dealer to give him 15 days to make this right. If he does not, she will file a civil lawsuit against him, demanding repairs or a full refund, she said.

Experts, however, say the mother-daughter team could have avoided this mess by following a few simple tips.

First, research the dealer and gather word-of-mouth testimonials to learn if he or she is reputable, Bill Harbeson, director of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicle's enforcement division, said.

You can contact Harbeson's office at 866-368-4689 to learn if a dealer is properly licensed with the state or to file a complaint, and the Better Business Bureau at 361-827-7151 to learn if former customers have filed similar complaints.

In this case, the dealer is licensed to sell automobiles in Texas and the company faces no other formal grievances.

Next, test drive the vehicle, ask for a history report and read the Buyers Guide.

Maybe the most important tip to follow is to always pay an independent mechanic to inspect the car for problems, especially if it's used.

The state has 17,000 dealers, Harbeson said, and Texans file 6,000 complaints against them each year.

Part of Meaux's complaint is the dealer told her and her daughter the car operated just fine and that he'd fix it if it didn't, she said. He also pressured them to buy without having the Volvo inspected, she said.

Meaux said she has no documents to prove either complaint.

Typically, dealers are required when selling used cars to provide a certificate that notes the transaction is an "As Is" purchase. This means customers agree to buy a vehicle in the condition it's in, even if that condition includes problems.

This agreement trumps all sales claims, such as the puffy notion the car would drive just fine, Harbeson said.

Meaux, however, said she and her daughter received no such document. If she files suit, a judge will review this matter and award accordingly.

Craig Lester, owner of Fritz's Auto Center, said his mechanics inspected the car after it broke down. They determined the Volvo is in bad shape, but can't say whether the car was faulty when Meaux's daughter bought it.

"Be wary of what you buy, especially if it's used," Alex Hernandez, Meaux's lawyer, said. "I give this case a 50-50 chance of winning. It could be a hard lesson learned for the mother and daughter."

If you wonder why the mother and daughter are not protected under the state's Lemon Law, it's because this law pertains to the sale of new vehicles. Even then, the law typically only applies if problems occur within the manufacturer's warranty, which is typically a given time period or set mileage, such as 100,000 miles.

The 2000 Volvo's warranty ended long ago.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Meaux said. "If anyone else buys a car, make sure that if the dealer doesn't want you to take it to a mechanic, go somewhere else. Unreal."

Gabe Semenza is the Public Service Editor for the Advocate. Comment on this story at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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