‘The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual — his shrine to the self — his mobile Walden Pond,” wrote California sociologist Edward McDonagh. The auto has changed everything from the shape of our cities to our ties to extended family. When it works, it is a magic arrow to freedom and the ultimate symbol of dreams.

But when it breaks down, all that freedom drains away and our cash goes right along with it. For most of us, an auto is the second most expensive and complicated investment we make.

Both processes of servicing and of purchasing — or leasing — and auto have become increasingly shrouded in protective laws, odd disclosures, and smuggled-in dispute clauses. To help individuals sort through the car repair and buying legalities, the New Jersey State Bar Foundation presents a free seminar, “Cars, Consumers, and Consumer Law,” on Wednesday, May 10, at 7 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. Visit www.njsbf.com to register.

Representing both the dealers’ and the consumers’ position are attorneys Cindy K. Miller, former chair of the Consumer Protection Law Committee and currently in private practice in Westfield; Michael Halbfish, partner in Woodbridge-based Tunney & Halbfish; and consumer law attorney Andrew Wolf of Galex Wolf in East Brunswick.

Miller is one of those rare lawyers who has defended both dealers and consumers in court, and tried to bring them both together in mediation. A native of Paterson, she was raised in Fair Lawn and graduated from Indiana University in l975 with a B.A. misleadingly titled “forensics.”

“Actually, it was police administration,” says Miller, “but that was the l970s and ‘police’ was not a word one would use to attract undergraduates.” She obtained her law degree from Temple in l978 and became senior deputy attorney general for the state. She also became a official mediator for the state Supreme Court’s presumptive mediation program.

Miller is an adjunct professor at Kean University. In her private practice, she advocates for dealers in the automotive field, while defending consumers in other fields. “It allows me to keep balanced, but not conflicted,” she says.

If you are a car owner, you are lucky to live in New Jersey. According to Miller, the Garden State provides more protection, more disclosures, and more anti-fraud enforcement from the auto’s initial purchase right through its last trip to the service bay.

The laws are not enough, though. Consumers must know their rights and pay attention to them throughout their relationships with their cars.

What a lemon! Sometimes the assembly line just turns out a machine that was born to break down and can never quite be wrestled into running smoothly. New Jersey protects the consumer from being stuck with a bad purchase, and may even require a dealer to provide a replacement car.

Basically a lemon is any purchased, leased, or registered car or motorcycle that has one or more defects that persists after three repair attempts, or has been out of service for more than 20 days in a year. This must be a substantial flaw (CD player static does not count.)

More minor flaws are covered under the New Jersey statute that guarantees at least a two year or 18,000 mile warranty.

As of l996 used autos have been given their own lemon law protection. For any used car bought after July 7, l996, the dealer must provide a 90 day/3,000 mile warranty for vehicles with 24,000 miles or less. For 24,001 to 60,000 miles, the warranty is 60 days or 2,000 miles,, and for a car with 60,001 to 100,000 miles on the odometer, dealers will provide 30 day/ 1,000 mile warranty. Pilots of motorized scooters or motorized wheelchairs also coast in for one year’s coverage.

No protection covers cars not sold by dealers, older than seven years, purchased for under $3,000, registering over 100,000 miles, or listed as “totaled” by insurance companies. For further information, contact Consumer Affairs Bureau, 153 Halsey Street, Newark 07102; 973-504-6226.

Dealer woes. “There is a real tendency to picture automotive dealers as the villains in the picture,” says Miller, “but increasing burdens from the law and from manufacturers have made many dealers feel more and more squeezed.” The number one hassle for the automotive dealer — and his customer — is the paper avalanche. All the marvelous disclosures, and pre-tests, and affidavits have made purchasing an auto about as complex a deal as purchasing a house. This adds to a dealer’s staff time, and cuts into his profit. This enlarged paper stream has also flowed over into the service division.

“It’s a popular myth that dealers offer financing,” says Miller. In fact, most all financing is offered by manufacturers through their dealerships. Individual dealers must follow the terms, set up all the paperwork, and in some cases be responsible for collection. But they do not share in the money these loans generate. Collection of payments has become the major source of dealer litigation.

Warranty reimbursement is another manufacturing squeeze endured by dealers. Typically, car manufacturers repay set amounts for recall and other repairs, and this frequently leaves the dealer’s service department shorted.

Dealers can be squeezed by consumers over service issues also. Miller notes that little fraud is encountered by dealers from consumers. The one exception is frequent claims that iPods — and similar high-priced small items — were stolen out of the glove compartment while the auto was being serviced.

Dispute clauses. As selling and servicing become increasingly legalized and entangling, many dealers have embedded a dispute resolution clause in the sales contract. This usually states that any disagreement between the buyer and selling dealer will be settled out of court by a representative of a named arbitration association. “Buyers almost never note this clause,” says Miller.

A veteran mediator, Miller says that mediation allows a sensible compromise to be reached, as opposed to arbitration, which, in effect, serves as merely a cheaper, swifter court decision.

It may appear that signing the arbitration clause denies you the opportunity of a jury trial, but this is not always so. The American Arbitration Association and most arbiters will take no case where one party wants to go to (and qualifies for) Small Claims Court.

Bettering repair odds. When your beloved auto’s brakes start to go, you can tell the repair person to a) fix it as needed; b) give it the best fix $200 will buy; or c) give this thing a brake job. Miller notes that while the first two may be acceptable, the last direction is open for misinterpretation. Your idea may be to merely polish the rotors, while the mechanic may replace everything on the wheels but the tires.

Most important, advises Miller, is to write down the exact automotive ailment and under what circumstances it occurs. Keep a copy for yourself. Problems transferred verbally from owner to service manager to mechanic tend to morph greatly.

Is it necessary to really know your car and engine before you take it in for repair? “Well, that can’t hurt,” says Miller. “But the most important thing to know well in auto repair is your mechanic. I know both Jim and Tommy and I am sure that they will always treat me honestly.” All business is personal.

“Cars are implements of vanity,” says Miller. “At the auto show, people look at the hybrids with mild fascination, but in the end they all cluster around the sports cars and the plush models. That’s what we want.”

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