Monday, April 16, 2007

The People's Court Is in Session

Dodge NeonOkay Solomon, time to impart some wisdom: a friend of mine, let's call her Mildred--mostly because that couldn't possibly be her real name and I'm pretty sure she'd dislike being called Mildred--had a problem that I found rather interesting.

Mildred and her husband were the owners of one well-used Dodge Neon. They drove it until it had well over 120,000 miles to its credit then decided it was time to purchase a newer vehicle. This little Neon, however, had been an excellent car for them, never breaking down or requiring significant repairs during the two or three years that they'd owned it. Mildred's husband had taken special care of it, plugging in the engine heater when the nights were cold, giving it regular tune-ups when needed, driving it only to and from work and rarely taking it up to highway speeds.

They decided to ask $950 for it, with the thought of coming down if necessary.

Many calls came in but finally a single mom came with her brother (a self-described "mechanic") to inspect and test-drive the car, finally pronouncing it to be in excellent shape due to the obvious good care it had received. (How's the story going so far?)

The woman offered them $850 and Mildred and her husband accepted. The woman paid the money, took the keys and everyone was happy. Until the next day.

Mildred received a rather emotional call from the buyer, saying she'd been driving out to Eagle River (a 45-minute drive from Anchorage) and the car had broken down. What's more, after taking it to an auto repair shop the mechanic there determined that the car had blown a head gasket--a cost of $3000 to repair--and that the previous owners must have known about this problem when the sale occurred.

The woman continued to call them though I hadn't heard that she has made any demands, probably because she ultimately has no legal claim in the matter. Mildred said that she recognized that they had no legal responsibility towards the buyer but asked me whether I thought there was any moral or ethical responsibility involved?

Hmmm . . . this one was a bit tricky. Someone once told me that doing the right thing wasn't half as hard as determining what the "right thing" is. This might be one of those instances.

So what would you do? How would you respond to this woman? Assuming, of course, that you really had no knowledge of the impending break down--as was the case with Mildred and her husband. One person I know had an interesting response. He said, "Well, determine how much money it's going to take to make the problem go away and then give her a little bit more." Obviously, that's someone who has had frequent and extended dealings with our civil "justice" system.

Mildred's husband was suspicious of the circumstances of the break down. Knowing the car better than anyone he wondered what the buyer had done to cause the problem. He speculated that she had drove it too hard (she'd put 120 miles on the car that first day) or too fast and that her actions had contributed to the issue. He was also concerned that if any of the purchase money were refunded that it would be the equivalent of an admission of fraud on their part. He worried that if they gave some of the money back it open them up to liability in the future, perhaps a lawsuit demanding the rest of the refund. All valid points.

I asked my husband, my in-house counsel, what he recommended and he said "Caveat emptor--buyer beware. Nothing to be done, the buyer is out of luck and made a bad call. Period." Leave it to the attorney to start spouting Latin. It surprised me a bit, because Andrew deals with litigious circumstances at the office constantly and always seeks for common ground, ways to make the peace without going into further litigation. He's a deal man and rarely takes the hard line.

Me? My thoughts were that this break-down was a freak of nature, one that probably would have happened sooner or later. I surprised myself by taking a soft stance--atypical of me I assure you--and saying that I'd split the difference with her and give her back $425. I figure she probably needed the money--anyone buying a car with 120,000 miles for $850 isn't exactly rolling in cash--and would go away with a deal like that. If the car had broken while they still owned it, it would have been a total loss so at least this way they'd come out $425 ahead in the end.

Now's the time to cast your vote--what advice would you give poor Mildred and her husband?

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Anonymous said...

i'd consider the split the difference solution only upon seeing the estimate from the repair shop.

could be a scam, trying to get something out of them, sounds freaky odd how it just happened RIGHT after buying it. who knows, could happen, but seems odd.

mcewen said...

I'm with the husband - caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. No knowledge on the part of the seller means a clear conscience. The buyer brought her mechanic son as a back up.
I wouldn't go with the scam but that's because I'm an optimist.
The law is clear cut. The conscience is not.
If you want to sleep well, split the difference. [assuming you have deep pockets]

Heffalump said...

I am personally not a trusting person. I would be suspicious of a scam. The lady brought someone along to check out the car, and they advised her that it was a good investment on her part. If anything she should be mad at her brother. How do we know that the shop she has taken the car to isn't her brother's shop? Of course, putting yourself in her theoretical shoes...makes you feel bad for her. But being the untrusting person that I am...I would certainly have a lot of doubts about the whole thing. I would be finding out everything I can about this woman, and her brother to try to determine if they are trustworthy. It does definitely make me think that in the future, your friends may want to make sure they have a "We are not responsible for any problems with the vehicle once you take posession of it" clause included in the sale of any vehicles. I am curious as to what they decide to do.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely vote with your lawyer hubby. No if's, but's or whatevers. The lady brought her mechanic. Ethel sold it is good faith. The buyer took the chance. It's NOT the seller's fault nor responsibility. Boo Hoo. Cece

kailani said...

Since Mildred and her husband really had no knowledge of any problems, then I don't think it's their responsibility to pay for anything. Afterall, she did check it out beforhand.

chelle said...

I am with your husband on this one. Buyer beware. Totally sucks that the car broke down after the first day, but it totally happens, this in mind that the seller was on the up & up!

Barry Pike said...

If I were Mildred's husband who had taken such good care of the car, I would want to have a frank discussion with the mechanics at the repair shop first.

If I were convinced that this was not a scam or a case of abuse, I would consider refunding half of the cost of the car. Even if it is not possible to be 100% convinced, one can seldom go wrong by erring on the side of charity.

If, however, I smelled deceit in the air at any point, I would hardline it as your husband suggested, and walk away.

chilihead said...

Barry makes a good point and I like it.

I agree with Andrew. If Mildred and her husband truly didn't know about it and the buy had her brother/mechanic check it out and she bought it anyway, she's on her own. That doesn't mean I don't feel for her. I do. I've made bad decisions before myself.

edj said...

I'm with Andrew on this one. Since Mildred and her husband took such good care of the car, didn't know about the problem, and came down on their initial asking price, I think the buyer is just out of luck.
I'm a deeply cynical person (living overseas will do that to you) and I sense a scam--especially since the mechanic relative spotted nothing. If he spotted nothing, how were Mildred and hubs supposed to have "known and kept it secret?" Seems fishy to me. I'd have a word with those mechanics.
Not that I don't have sympathy for the buyer. I really do. But M needs to be careful, as paying up could be viewed as admitting fraud.

jchevais said...

over on this side of the pond we would say the same thing.

We actually had something like this happen though not as drastic, of course. We sold a car that didn't run right (we had to push it to get it to start, gads) for very cheap (it was bought by a gypsy no less). We were very surprised when he called to complain when the car wouldn't start. We told him that the battery was dead. Duh. Buy a battery.

Also? I smell a scam.

Geekwif said...

I hate to throw a wrench in this thing, but...well, I have a wrench that must be thrown. I drive a Neon which I have had for several years. There's a funny problem with them. The head gasket blows every 60,000 miles.

I had to replace mine at almost exactly 60,000 miles and again at 120,000. The mechanic who did the work said this is a common problem with Neons. (I would think her mechanic brother should know this.)

Now, if I were them, I would advise the buyer to get a second opinion on the price, because both times I had this repair done (one of which was just last year) it cost $2000. But I would have to side with your husband on this one. Buyer beware. It's the buyer's responsibility, not the seller's, to research any known issues with this model of car before they make their purchase.

Also, did they sign a purchase agreement? Because a standard purchase agreement would normally have an "as is" clause in it with a private purchase.

jenn in holland said...

I too am voting with Andrew on this one. In truth I don't think it fairfor the buyer to have called Mildred to tell her about the breakdown. Bill of sale in hand, the deed is done and the seller is no longer in the picture. I think Mildred needs to really understand that this is simply NOT HER FAULT. And I don't think a bit of money needs to be returned.
At the end of the day, she made the sale in good faith and I don't see any upside to giving a refund of any sort. Sympathy? Sure. But money? Nah.

odat_kim said...

Consider selling the car for parts, most places will give you at least $400. Body shop might give you more if the bodyis in good shape. Maybe Mildred should look into that, should could end up getting more than the $850 the buyer paid. Also $3000 sounds like an awful lot for a blown gasket (and that's not taking into consideration the exchange rate).


Viscountess said...

I'm a Realtor, and I have had things like this happen with houses, when a lot more than $3000 is on the line. The problem here is that any financial reparations would imply (as Mildred's husband said) an admission of guilt. Anyone paying $850 for a car with 120,000 miles on it has to know they're taking a gamble.
Regarding the woman who has driven a Neon, and had to put a new head gasket on twice, this is easily discovered information with a quick Google search. A responsible buyer would have done her research before laying out the cash.

janet said...

I'm with your hubby on this one. If a warranty was given or asked for by the buyer, different story.

What will happen next with the car and then will they split the difference until basically they end up giving back all the money she paid for the car?

G's Cottage said...

This is the reason I signed up for my mechanic's seller's warranty program a few years ago. I think the national sponsor is either NAPA or SAE, anyway. It cost $300 (I was asking $2000 for the car).

In your friends' case, the buyer brought a self-declared 'expert' to advise her so they technically are not under any obligation. You didn't give the year for the car but I would doubt that even in Alaska a Neon with 120,000 miles (est 8-10 years old) is worth a $3000 repair unless the original owner has an emotional attachment to it. From that perspective, I would give her $950 to get back the car and its title, free and clear, and either sell it for scrap to get back the extra hundred for her pain and suffering or donate it to a shop school program as a practice vehicle for a tax receipt. This is the only solution I would offer her; and she would have to stop calling. If she had driven it a week or more this would not be my suggestion but the next day failure I would find hard to dump on any buyer regardless of their personality quirks.

Also, gaskets rarely give any warning they are history. This is a potential issue with any bi-metal engine, not just the Neon, (the metals on opposite sides of the gasket heat and expand at different rates so the older and less flexible the gasket, the less it is able to fill the gaps); and the cheaper the car the more likely it has the potential for this earlier in its life because the parts are not as robust as the higher end cars. (And yes a Neon is not an Aspire, but it's not a Lexus either.)

And yes, I took farm mechanics in high school and our friends husbands hate playing "Battle of the Sexes" with us because I can answer almost all of the car and tool questions.

Mercy's Maid said...

How do they know that the buyer isn't trying to scam them?

I mean, they never had any problems when they had the car, and the lady had her "mechanic" brother inspect the car before she bought it. Wouldn't he have noticed an obvious problem?

Maybe it's not broken down at all and she's just looking to make a few bucks off Mildred?

Anonymous said...

I'm married to a lawyer and I go with buyer beware. Sorry that it happened, but that's how it goes.

My sympathies are with Mildred and her husband for having to put up with this kind of nonsense. Nothing is easy.

Coach J said...

I'm with your husband, too. Buyer beware. I do feel sorry for the new buyer having to go through this, but stuff happens. I hope Mildred gets some peace about this.

Inkling said...

I'm with your husband on this one, having been in a similar situation myself. When you buy a used car with a lot of miles (especially a domestic model), you run that risk. Mildred and her husband owe this woman nothing. All parties performed due diligence (getting the car ready for sale, inspecting it before sale), and this is just an unfortunate event.

But, on the other hand, it is only a matter of $850. (Which amount seems strangely low, as I was able to get more than that out of my old, used Saturn that had a shot transmission and 200,000 miles. My uncle bought it from me and restored it.) If they want her out of their hair, they could write an official letter that would close any future legal doors for being sued, make copies of said letter and get it notarized so no one can argue that they wrote it, and then refund the woman all her money. Then the woman has no room to gripe, and she can sell the Neon for parts. The woman will be ahead, and Mildred and her husband can get on with their lives. They might even want to change their phone number. That would be the "bending over backward and totally taking the high road" option. (I've been there too. The high road gets old, but at least it's blameless. Plus, there's always the possibility of vindication someday.)

Sandy said...

I guess I'd let it be, since she and her husband did not know it was a problem.

Splitting the difference could be a bit mucky. I guess I'd have them sign some sort of contract (Andrew?) that said this was not an admission of any prior knowledge.

I'm also a little leery of that mechanic. It's a pretty bold statement to say that the previous owner would have to have known about it, not knowing anything about the previous owner. A little fishy, if you ask me.

dcrmom said...

I'm with your hubby on this one. It's a shame, but there is hardly any responsibility on your friend's part.

laughing mommy said...

I agree with your husband. When you buy a used car you take a chance that it will need repairs eventually (maybe even that same day... you have no way of knowing). Unless you had knowledge that the car needed repair and didn't tell the buyer you can walk away with a clean conscience. Just my opinion.

Also, if you are responsible for car repairs AFTER you sell a car, who would ever sell their car? Wouldn't you just keep it rather than pay for repairs for someone elses car?

scribbit said...

Sounds like the majority has spoken--Andrew will be gratified :)

I guess Caveat emptor is the word for the day.

And you know I haven't heard what actually ended up settling the issue? I ought to ask Mildred and see--maybe she'll weigh in here and give some details.

Amy W said...

I agree with your husband, buyer beware.

I sold my car from college to a relative only to have two weeks later it needed a new transmission. Oops.

Maria said...

I'm with geekwif and g's cottage. I'm a little suspicious of asking only $950 for a car in such great condition, even with 120,000 miles on it. That said, buyer beware is a valid stance, and there is the possibility of a scam (though somehow I'm not feeling that it is). If the blown head gasket doesn't give warning, you can't blame the brother who made the initial inspection (or the seller).

Given all that and the murkiness of the situation I think taking the car back and refunding the money, plus $100 or not, brings everybody back to square one and no hard feelings.

Another good solution in my view would be to have a mechanic of the seller's choosing look at the car and give an estimate on the repair and make a decision from there.

J at said...

I would be afraid of what your husband suggested...that any money given could be construed as an admission of fraud.

However, I might, if my conscience dictated, offer to pay half, with a signed paper saying that the first owner had no knowledge of the problem, and that they were only paying because the problem occurred so SOON after the purchase...

On the other hand (I'm tying myself up here, aren't I?), if her husband wants to pay nothing and suspects fraud on the buyers' side, I would think that peace in the home is important too. I would tell the folks how sorry I am, and leave it at that.

An Ordinary Mom said...

I normally tend to have a very compassionate side to me, but I am so with your husband on this one - "Caveat emptor", indeed.

Do you think I am cool now for quoting Latin?

Lisa said...

Oh that is really tough.I'm with the people who sense a scam and the real estate agent.

Melissa R. Garrett said...

It's a little suspicious, in my opinion. Didn't you say her brother, who accompanied her to look at the car, is a mechanic?

I would have said, "Sorry Charlie. No refunds. A deal is a deal."

PS ~ Thanks for the kind words regarding Bridget's shirt and The Cow Jumping Over The Moon :-)

Ni Yachen said...

Your post reminded me that a similar thing happened to me. Our first car was a 1992 Chevy Corseca and it was a piece of crap. After of couple of years we got fed up with it. The last straw was when it died on my wife in an intersection while she was pregnant. We fixed that problem then sold it at the first offer. A week or so later, we get a call and the owner's new wife had a break down. Luckily we had told them all the existing problems and this was a new one.

kim in mi said...

boy I don't know what I'd do. Cry a lot, probably. Beyond that, I'm not sure. I mean, intellectually I agree with the "buyer beware" but, then again, if I WAS the buyer and it happened to me, I'd be crushed and probably lamenting lemons even if I hadn't thought it was ...

MIldred said...

OK, lets see if this one sticks. I just spent all this time typing a response and I lost it.

Its nice to know that my woes in life are the subject of great debate. Yes, it is I "Mildred". First let met correct a few facts - the woman actually had the car for 2 days before it broke. She drove it that first day over 120 miles and admitted that the car had driven perfectly for her during that time. 120 miles is probably more than my husband drove the car in a week.

THis was a hard one for me. I really felt for the woman. I'm the one who took her calls. SHe called me a number of times crying on the phone telling me how she needed a car to get her baby to day care and that she just got a job and needed a car to get there. She used all her money to buy this car and now she had nothing. It was really hard on me. My initial thought was to give her $200 or so. BUt, my husband completely disagreed. His point was that its buyer beware and we did nothing wrong. We were completely honest and upfront with them about the car and any problems we had with it (which were really none. We'd actually just taken it in for a tune up and replaced some plugs and such the previous month.). We took really good care of it. My husband is fanatical about getting oil changes and taking our cars in anytime there is the slightest noise or problem. He babied that car to make it last.

His feelings were that this was an old car and we practically gave it away. We not only sold it for $850 ($100 under asking) but we also threw in some snow tires that were pretty new. Those had to be worth $200 or so by themselves.

He said that if the car had broken down as they drove it out away from our house after buying it, then he would have given them their money back, but we have no idea what she did to it during the time she had it. If (as according to her mechanic) there was NO WAY that we couldn't have known that this gasket was going to blow and that it HAD to be overheating and such for a long time...then why didn't she notice problems when she drove it for that 120 miles?

He felt that if we gave her any money at all then we'd be admitting some guilt and wrong doing on our part - and we did nothing wrong. He was afraid that we'd just be opening a can of worms by doing this. And, he said that frankly by giving her any money it was basically just a gift because we felt bad for her and there are many other people we know that we'd rather give $200 to. We aren't made of money and we needed that cash too, and since we didn't feel that we were in the wrong in the end we just wrote her a letter explaining our position and we haven't heard from her since.

I felt really bad about it, but after she called demanding the receipts and documents we had from our mechanic showing the work we'd done, and then after she called our mechanic (after we told her we wouldn't give them to her) asking them for our receipts...I didn't feel so bad anymore.

But, its nice to hear that most of you agree and don't feel that we did anything wrong.


Shane said...

I would have to refund half of the purchase price just so I could sleep at night.

JennyMcB said...

Glad to see Mildred's response. It is hard, but what a deal for a car.

I am a cynic when selling and will trade in my cars to avoid a private sale. ( One mini van I kept asking the dealership if he was sure that there was no lemon law and that no one would haunt us about the junky car we were trading in)

Mildred's husband was right!

Val said...

I'd give her all her money back. She knows where the sellers live.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry about it! You buy a car "as seen"!

TeaMouse said...

I'm also with the husband (ceveat emptor). I too have had my share of bad used cars and it's just the price you pay when you buy one. There are never any gurantees with cars - even brand new ones break down. I've heard of people buying a brand new car that started spewing oil and needed a whole new engine. Only good thing is it was under warranty.
If her money was tight and she wanted to be assured it was a good car she could have requested to take it to a auto shop and have diagnostic tests run - if at that time she discovered any problems they could have negotiated on the price or she could have looked for a better car. Either way she'd have been better off than being in the situation she's in now.

Amy said...

First of all, it is a shame that they got rid of such a good car. If they took good care of it and it was showing no problems of breaking down, how sad that they decided to sell it in the first place. My car has almost that mileage on it and there is no way in the world I would sell it. I guess that is besides the point though.

I would say that the buyer is responsible for that. Each state has different laws so she might want to contact some legal help to make sure she isn't responsible.

This happened to us (on a much smaller scale) with a car we had to sell. We had signed all of the paperwork and then the buyer called a day later to tell us the tail light was out. We were like, "So??"

I would take that same approach...

my4kids said...

Well I say its the buyers fault. Honestly if she brought even a self proclaimed mechanic and it was a problem that should have been obvious (I will ask the hubby later he is an actual mechanic, not jsut self proclaimed) then he should have cought it. When you buy a used car from a person you are buying it as is wether on paper or not its implied since its used. If it had been so well taken care of and this buyer was hard on it right away then more likely her driving pushed it farther then it was used to and its her fault anyway. Sorry I've dealt with stuff before sometimes on the losing end as the buyer and the other way around. My best friends hubby is a car dealer also so I know how it usually works. Anyway it would be up to the seller if she wants to give any of the money back but she wasn't there when the breakdown occured so she doesn't know if it was the buyer who pushed it to far.

sara - The Estrogen Files said...

Ah, I'm sure that's a tough one! Still, if she brought someone to look at it it's her own folly. You can't fix everything, nor protect everyone from everything. Sad for the buyer, remorseful and misplaced guilt for the seller, but nothing done wrong. I wonder what every happened?