Accepting rusty car was big mistake

CONSUMING INTERESTS

November 11, 2007|By DAN THANH DANG

When a salesman pushes a little too hard, when the price is too high, when the product isn't exactly what we want or when we're just not sure, we can take our money and walk. We forget that all too often.

William and Rondalyn Hickey could have said "No" to Antwerpen Nissan in Clarksville on Aug. 27.

When the dealer hoisted the car they'd picked out on a lift and the Hickeys discovered rust on the back half of the undercarriage, the couple from Olney should have high-tailed it out of there and never looked back.

But the Hickeys were smitten. The 2007 Nissan Altima was to be their first new car in 30 years.

"They said the rust was normal," said Mr. Hickey, 60, a retired policeman. "They told us not to worry. They told us if there was any problem, bring it back. It was $25,500 out the door.

"It was a mistake on our part," Hickey said.

Still worried about the rust, the Hickeys subsequently took the car to two repair shops in Olney.

Graves Auto & Appliance found "front brake rotors pitted, front brake hoses & lines rusted bad and outer tie rod ends rusted." The service report on Sept. 5 also said it "looks like vehicle sat in water at one time ... not normal."

Ditto for Fletcher's Service Center.

The Hickeys then called and wrote to Antwerpen and Nissan North America Inc., demanding "the reimbursement of all costs, expenses, car payments and payment for their lost time and hardship in dealing with this situation."

Follow-up inspection

Nissan requested a follow-up inspection at a Nissan-certified shop. The Hickeys took it to DarCars Nissan in Rockville, which also "found rust on front suspension components, pitting on front and rear rotors ... surface rust on exhaust system."

But Nissan and Antwerpen deemed the amount of rust normal, the Hickeys said. Essentially, both rejected responsibility and told the Hickeys to go pound sand. That's when William Hickey III, their attorney son, sent notice to both and threatened to sue. The Hickeys also filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, the attorney general's office and the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs.

When Hickey III called me last month, there was little room for maneuver.

Antwerpen doesn't agree that there was an unusual amount of rust on the car when it was sold.

"I don't know that the car was sold with any rust," Executive Vice President Stanford Hess said. "I don't know if the customer is being reasonable about what's there."

He also said that if there was a problem, "We don't manufacture the car and we don't paint the car. This is an issue between [the Hickeys] and Nissan. The overall warranty on the car covers the paint, mechanical issues and other parts of the car."

Nissan declined to go into details about the case, but said through a spokesman that the company is still working with the Hickeys to resolve the issue.

Hess, however, said that Nissan offered to go to mediation with the couple through the BBB but that the Hickeys declined. The Hickeys also told me they have no interest in repairs. They want a complete refund. "A brand-new car should not have this kind of problem," Hickey III said. "My mom won't drive it. She feels like she was defrauded. If they don't reverse the entire transaction, then we will have to file a lawsuit. Pursuant under the lemon law, we've given them notice."

It's a pity.

This is a messy, ugly fight, and the outcome is not a slam-dunk for the Hickeys.

Law's provisions

Here's why:

1. Under Maryland's lemon law, a car is deemed a lemon if a brake or steering failure is not corrected after the first repair attempt and it fails inspection; if any one problem that was not corrected in four repair attempts substantially impairs its use and market value; or if any number of problems substantially impair its use and market value and cause it to be out of service for a cumulative total of 30 days or more.

The Hickeys' car still works. Even though they have reason to worry about what the rust will do in the future, the lemon law doesn't really cover that.

2. There is no evidence the car was damaged by water.

I checked Carfax.com, a huge database that pulls damage records from motor vehicle departments, manufacturers and other sources. No damage or flood reports were found on the Hickeys' new car. I also checked www.is-it-a-lemon.com. The only records available were the Altima's birth record on Jan. 6 and a routine pre-delivery inspection record in February.

This is not proof positive that the car didn't sit in water, since it could be that damage was never reported to any authority. But short of someone popping up to say they had personal knowledge of water damage, there simply is no evidence to prove it.

3. The dealership and Nissan haven't been given a chance to fix the problem.

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