Bypassing the legal system
CAA's dispute mediation saves car dealers and customers time and money

When Luc Kiernan bought a used 2001 Nissan Sentra late last year, the problems began almost as soon as he brought it home.

First it was water leaking into its trunk. Then he noticed grill underneath the front bumper was dented. Then when he looked closely at the body, it seemed like the left side of the car was painted a slightly different color than the right side.

Despite having been told by the salesman at St-Leonard Nissan, that the car, --which had 31,650 kilometers on it when Kiernan bought it-- had never been in an accident, he began to suspect otherwise.

But when Kiernan called to complain, he began to feel like he was getting the runaround, and that the only way out was to take his case to court. "I was worried," said Kiernan, who runs a housecleaning service called Entretien Hebdo. "Going to court would have been a real inconvenience. I use my car for work, and had put a lot of money into it, and it would have taken a long time to settle things."

Fortunately, while asking around about what to do, he called CAA Quebec and was told about its Conciliation and Mediation Program, through which members can get free mediation of their disputes with car dealers.

The program, now in its fourth year, is run in conjunction with the Quebec Automobile Dealers Association and has an impressive success rate. Of the 62 cases brought before the CAA during 2001, 57 were settled. The rest were sent to an arbitration panel made up of three CAA members, and two from the QADA, which means that the consumers gets the benefit of the doubt.

Of the complaints resolved last year, 21 per cent related to after-sales service, 19 per cent to hidden defects, 16 per cent to commercial practices, and the balance for a variety of other reasons.

Kiernan doesn't see himself as a difficult customer, and felt he had no choice but to accept mediation. "The car was only one year old and I expected it to be like new when I bought it," said Kiernan. "I treated it well and bought supplementary insurance, anti-rust protection, and paint sealer. I was a serious customer."

Looking back, Kiernan said his problems developed because he signed the dealer's contract late in the evening, and the car's defects did not stand out as much as they would have in daylight.

"Sentras have an extremely good reputation," said Kiernan. "And I read in a magazine that Nissan dealers have the best service rating of all Quebec car companies. So I had a lot of confidence and did not inspect the car as closely as I should have."

"Eventually the dealer confirmed the car had been in an accident before, and that the repairs and paint job had been badly done," said Kiernan. But despite this admission, he was unable to come to an amicable settlement.

That's when the CAA came in. Kiernan filled out a form outlining his problems with the car and the remedy he expected in return. The CAA then forwarded it to the automotive dealer's association, who contacted St-Leonard Nissan.

"A short time later I got a call saying that the dealer had agreed to settle," said Kiernan. "They were willing to fix my car, and I got a check for $250 in damages."

George Popescu, St-Leonard Nissan's general manager confirmed Kiernan's difficulties. Popescu said that it's company policy to never sell a car that had been in an accident before, unless it's disclosed to the customer. Unfortunately there was a change of ownership at the dealer in November 2001, and Kiernan's car had been sold under the previous administration.

"Used cars are bought at auctions from rental companies," said Popescu. "But this particular model was not identified to us as having been in an accident, because technically they only have to do so if the frame was damaged, which it wasn't."

However Popescu said that he would have been glad to repair the car without arbitration, but after some initial conversations Kiernan stopped calling and never got back to him.

According to one CAA spokesperson these sorts of communication difficulties are common, especially when tempers run high, and are one of the big reasons the mediation program is so successful.

But they are not the only reason. Another big advantage is that it can take up to a year to get a case heard in Quebec Small Claims Court, while under the CAA program disputes are usually wrapped up in a week or two.

In any case Kiernan was more than satisfied with the results. "Not only did St-Leonard Nissan fix all the problems I mentioned, they went even further," said Kiernan. "They also repainted the hood and fixed a noise in the door that had been bothering me, and I got a courtesy car for two weeks."

In fact Kiernan was so satisfied, that when the time came for regular maintenance on his car, he brought it back for dealer servicing.

But even if Kiernan had not been satisfied with the CAA's mediation results, it still would have been a no-lose proposition. Because while committee recommendations are binding on the car dealer, if the consumer is dissatisfied, he maintains the option of instituting legal proceedings.

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Photo Caption: When Luc Kiernan found hidden defects in the used Nissan Sentra he had just bought, he asked the CAA to help mediate his dispute with the dealer.

 

Diekmeyer's E-mail address is peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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