Natasha was involved in a hit-and-run auto accident that damaged her car’s bumpers and transmission. She took the car to a mechanic, was quoted $3,867.89, and ended up paying $4,315 (the original quote did not include additional costs for storage fees and a “paint kit”).
When she picked her car up, the front bumper was missing, and noises were coming from the engine. A second mechanic informed her that the transmission had not been repaired or replaced, but, when she called the original mechanic back, the phone number was disconnected.
The owner of the garage eventually refunded just $130 of the money that Natasha had paid, and basically told Natasha to get lost – no repairs, no parts, no refund. What now?
Most of us have similar auto mechanic horror stories or know someone who has had a similar experience – if my mechanic ripped me off, can I sue them for stealing my money?
Below, we will take a look at some of the more common scams that auto mechanics commit, how to avoid them, and how your attorney can help you to try and recover not only the money you lost, but also treble damages, punitive damages, and attorney fees in some cases.
How Auto Mechanics Rip You Off
First, it’s important to understand that, if your auto repairs don’t go as planned, it’s not necessarily because your mechanic is trying to rip you off.
Sometimes, your mechanic may find problems that were not obvious when you first brought the vehicle to the garage – legitimate problems that need to be fixed. Other times, your mechanic may be incompetent but not malicious – a situation where you may still be able to recover your money if the mechanic’s negligence caused harm to you.
Common Scams by Auto Mechanics
There are hundreds of different ways that an unethical auto mechanic can take advantage of someone who is not knowledgeable about cars. Some of the more common scams include:
- Overcharging for parts or labor, or billing the customer for more time than they spent on the repairs;
- Recommending replacement of parts that don’t need to be replaced – whether it is on purpose or because the mechanic is unable to diagnose the problem (they’re thinking, let’s just keep replacing parts until it’s fixed…);
- Recommending scheduled maintenance and procedures like engine or transmission flushes before they are necessary;
- Bait and switches – advertising ridiculously low prices for a procedure but then insisting that other, more expensive, procedures are necessary once they get you in the door;
- Recommending unnecessary repairs because the check engine light (the “idiot light” according to some mechanics) is on;
- Charging for parts that were not installed or labor that was not performed (like Natasha’s case); or
- Creating problems that were not there when you brought the car in – disconnecting or damaging a part, or just pretending that a part is faulty and charging you for the unnecessary repairs.
When a mechanic causes damage to your vehicle, performs unnecessary repairs, or charges you for repairs that were not done, and it can be proven, for example, through testimony by another mechanic, you may be able to sue the mechanic to recover the money they took as well as treble damages, punitive damages, and attorney fees in some cases.
How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off by Your Mechanic
If you are not familiar with automobiles and engines (it’s okay – you’re not alone here), avoiding getting ripped off by a mechanic can be difficult. Whenever possible, however, you should:
- Learn about your car’s engine and the common maintenance or repairs that are needed – although it may take some reading and study time, Google has the answer to just about everything;
- Have a friend who is more knowledgeable about cars take a look and go with you to talk with the mechanic;
- Give the mechanic as much information as possible about the symptoms – what’s happening and when it happens – but don’t tell the mechanic what you think the problem is (if you are wrong, you may end up paying for an extra repair because, well, you asked for it);
- Talk to the mechanic who will be working on the car; and
- When the mechanic tells you what the issue is, if it doesn’t sound right to you, ask them to show you – if everything is on the up-and-up, your mechanic should have no problem letting you see the evidence and explain what the issue is.
My Mechanic Ripped Me Off – What Can I Do?
Natasha sued the mechanic that took her money, filing suit for:
- Breach of Contract; and
- Violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.
In addition to recovering the money that the mechanic stole from her (before closing their doors and going out of business), she is entitled to punitive damages for the conversion, fraud, and misrepresentation causes of action.
The SC Court of Appeals heard an appeal from the mechanic, and found that: 1) she is entitled to punitive damages on the conversion, fraud, and misrepresentation claims, and the lower court must consider the statutory factors in awarding punitive damages; but 2) she was not entitled to recovery under the Unfair Trade Practices Act (which allows treble damages and attorney fees).
Why Was it Not a Violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act?
In many cases, if my mechanic ripped me off, it was also a violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.
But an Unfair Trade Practices Act claim requires additional and different evidence at trial than the breach of contract, fraud, or conversion claims. You need to prove:
- The mechanic engaged in an unfair or deceptive act in the conduct of trade or commerce;
- The unfair or deceptive act affected public interest; and
- You suffered monetary or property loss as a result of the mechanic’s unfair or deceptive acts.
To show that the unfair or deceptive acts affected the public interest, you will need to prove that “the acts or practices have the potential for repetition.” Singleton v. Stokes Motors, Inc., 358 S.C. 369, 379, 595 S.E.2d 461, 466 (2004):
The potential for repetition may be demonstrated in either of two ways: (1) by showing the same kind of actions occurred in the past, thus making it likely they will continue to occur absent deterrence; or (2) by showing the company’s procedures create a potential for repetition of the unfair and deceptive acts.
The Court of Appeals found that Natasha did not establish an impact on public interest because 1) there was no evidence introduced at trial that the garage had ripped off other customers before Natasha’s case, and 2) the business closed immediately after Natasha’s experience, which precludes future repetition of the fraud.
Although the Unfair Trade Practices Act was found not to apply in Natasha’s case, she is still entitled to recover her damages on the fraud, conversion, and misrepresentation causes of action, and the lower court was ordered to consider the statutory factors to determine whether Natasha is also entitled to punitive damages.
SC Consumer Protection Attorneys in Myrtle Beach
If you were ripped off by your mechanic, you may not be out of luck – depending on the circumstances, you may be able to file a lawsuit for conversion, fraud, fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of contract, breach of contract with a fraudulent act, or violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.
If you have been a victim of unfair or deceptive trade practices in SC, call the SC personal injury lawyers at Coastal Law now at (843) 488-5000 or send us a message online to speak with an attorney today who can review your case.