'99 settlement fails to satisfy car buyer

Harford Co. man sues dealership for $10 million

May 02, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A car buyer who received money in a settlement with a Howard County dealer last year remains dissatisfied with the outcome and is suing for $10 million.

Bob Leard of Harford County got $3,835 after sparking a Howard County consumer protection investigation that concluded Antwerpen Dodge in Clarksville had used a bait-and-switch scheme on him. The dealership paid $18,000, including Leard's share, in July to settle the case while admitting no wrongdoing.

From Jacob Antwerpen's point of view, Leard's decision to sue is a case of litigation abuse and using the courts to pursue frivolous claims.

"This case is a classic example of litigation abuse," Antwerpen said in a comment relayed through his lawyer, Nathan D. Adler. In a letter to Leard's lawyer last month, Adler claimed that "Mr. Leard has been made whole for any of his alleged damages (damages which Antwerpen utterly disputes). Now Mr. Leard would like to `double dip.' "

Antwerpen officials said the employees involved in the case had left the company, and Adler denied any wrongdoing. The dealership settled with Howard County last summer, agreeing not to violate fair trade laws, to participate in binding arbitration of complaints and to pay $18,000, of which $5,500 was divided between Leard and another customer who had complained, with the rest used to bolster the county's consumer education efforts.

Since the settlement, neither Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration officials nor investigators from Howard County's Office of Consumer Affairs have found evidence of wrongdoing at Antwerpen.

The dispute began in June 1998, when Leard tried to buy a Dodge Dakota pickup truck advertised repeatedly in The Sun by Antwerpen at a price of $10,990. He called and was told the truck was available at the advertised price, but when he arrived at the Clarksville dealership he was told it had just been sold. He was offered other trucks -- at higher prices. The same model number truck at the $10,990 price continued to appear in Antwerpen advertisements throughout the summer.

Unable to find the truck he saw in the newspaper, Leard gave up and bought the same model at a Dundalk dealership -- for $3,835 more.

Leard then complained to Stephen D. Hannan, administrator of Howard County's Office of Consumer Affairs, who assigned investigators. They posed as customers and had the same experience as Leard's -- five times. After issuing a subpoena for the advertised truck's records, Hannan's investigators determined the advertised truck was at Antwerpen all the time and was sold in September 1998 at a higher price.

Hannan said his investigators have responded to Antwerpen ads for vehicles several times since last summer, and they found the vehicles they asked about in the ad were available at the advertised prices.

But that hasn't stopped Leard, who maintains the $18,000 was a "slap on the wrist" for a dealership that never admitted wrongdoing.

"I don't need his money," said Leard, 61, who added that he once was a car salesman in California. "I didn't need his money before. This guy has just gotten under my skin."

J. Scott Morse, Leard's attorney, said his client suffered "humiliation, embarrassment, insult and indignity," and thinks that the dealer's payment was small change compared with the profits from running the ad for 100 days.

Adler, however, in a letter to Morse dated April 14, said, "Antwerpen will not be `shaken down' by his threats, nor will it cower to his attempts at intimidation and bullying."

Adler claims that because Antwerpen paid Leard for the losses he has alleged, he has sustained no damage, making his suit indefensible.

The Antwerpen lawyer also said the dealer might use the law to force Leard to pay its legal expenses by claiming that Leard's suit, filed April 4 in Howard County Circuit Court, meets the law's definition of "bad faith" and is "frivolous."

Leard said he isn't intimidated.

"I'm not backing off," he said.

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