Transmission firm owes restitution, appeals court rules

April 06, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Cottman Transmission Inc. customers who think they were overcharged for repairs stand to get some money back, thanks to a Court of Special Appeals decision.

Maryland's second-highest court held that the company should have been ordered to pay restitution to customers by a Baltimore Circuit judge who ruled in 1989 that Cottman engaged in deceptive trade practices.

The court also ordered that Cottman, based in Fort Washington, Pa., be tried on charges that it tricked customers into paying for unnecessary repairs.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. called the decision a "major victory" for his Consumer Protection Division.

"We are now able to take before a jury the issue of damages suffered by consumers. And we are able to seek and obtain restitution," he said.

Mr. Curran said he did not know how much money was involved. But the attorney general's office has received 400 complaints about Cottman, he said.

The court sent the case back to Baltimore so that a procedure could be set up "for the individual determination of consumer restitution claims."

A receptionist for Stephen Horn, Cottman's lawyer, said he would not comment on the decision.

In January 1988, the attorney general charged Cottman with four violations of the state's fair trade laws. The company was accused of misleading customers to believe that inspections costing $85 to $250 were needed to estimate repair costs.

Cottman also was charged with making unnecessary repairs.

Judge Thomas E. Noel agreed that the inspections were deceptive trade practices and ordered the company to pay a $100,000 fine. But he refused to order restitution for the customers who had been fooled and dismissed the charges that Cottman had made unnecessary repairs.

In a decision that was issued Thursday, the appeals court ruled that when Judge Noel found the company guilty of deceptive practices, it followed that he "should also have held that the money spent by consumers as a result of this deception be returned to them."

The court also held that Judge Noel's summary dismissal of the charges that the company charged for unnecessary repairs was in error because "there is a dispute of material fact regarding" those repairs. Such a dispute should be resolved through a trial, the court ruled.

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