When a creditor sues you for a deficiency judgment after it has repossessed your car, you might have defenses to that lawsuit or counterclaims that you can make against the creditor for damages of your own. These defenses or claims can reduce or even eliminate the balance of the debt. What follows is a short description of the various defenses or claims that might be available to you. (To learn more about car repossessions, see Car Repossession Laws: An Overview.)
The loan papers you signed should describe when you are considered to be in default. For example, some loan agreements state that a debtor is not in default if less than 30 days late on a payment. In others, you might be in default if just one day late on a payment. Some agreements require the lender to first send you a notice regarding the late payment and give you time to get current. Read your loan papers carefully.
Notwithstanding what your loan agreement says, if the creditor had a history of accepting late payments from you in the past without declaring a default, or did other things to change the terms of the loan agreement—such as changing the payment due date—you can raise this as a defense.
A creditor must comply with the law when repossessing a car. You can challenge a creditor's claim for a deficiency judgment if it failed to legally repossess the car, such as for the following reasons:
Creditors can't breach the peace while repossessing the car. That means it can't use or threaten to use force or violence. It can't break locks or destroy or damage property in attempting to reach the car. Nor can it use law enforcement to assist in a repossession or engage in a confrontation with you. If the creditor breached the peace, then you can raise that as a defense to a deficiency lawsuit. If the creditor or its repossession agent harmed you or your property (or threatened harm or force), you might also be able to seek damages in the form of a counterclaim. (Learn more about how motor vehicles are repossessed.)
If you're in military service, a creditor generally must obtain a court order before it may repossess your car. To be eligible for this protection against repossession, you must have signed the loan agreement, and paid at least the deposit or first installment payment, before you entered military service.
If a creditor takes your car without getting permission from a court, then not only can you raise that as a defense and counterclaim, but the creditor is potentially subject to criminal charges. (For more information on your rights as a service member and protection against car loan collection actions, see Car Repossessions: Special Protections for Military Servicemembers Under Federal Law.)
The creditor is not allowed to keep or sell personal property that was left in the car at the time the creditor repossessed it. The creditor must also use reasonable care to prevent others from causing loss or damage to your personal property. If the creditor has refused to return personal property, or if it is lost or damaged while in the creditor's possession or control, you may raise this as a defense and counterclaim for damages. (For more information on your rights concerning personal property taken during a car repossession, see Can I Get My Personal Property After a Car Repo?)
Even if you do owe a deficiency balance on the car loan, the creditor might have miscalculated the amount of that deficiency. Here are some issues that you should carefully look for when reviewing the creditor's calculations of what it claims you owe:
The creditor might be completely barred (prohibited) from collecting the deficiency. For instance, if the creditor failed to provide you with required written notices, did not conduct the sale of the car in a commercially reasonable manner, or refused to allow you to reinstate the loan, the law might prohibit it from going after you for the deficiency.
Similarly, if you filed for bankruptcy and discharged your car loan debt, the lender might be barred from collecting the deficiency. Or you could have other defenses if the creditor violated other federal or state consumer lending, debt collection, or consumer sales practices laws in its dealings with you. (For more information, see Can the Lender Collect a Deficiency After Repo?)
You might have additional claims and defenses not already covered here. For more information or assistance, contact your state attorney general office or state consumer protection agency (see State Consumer Protection Offices to find yours), or consult with a local attorney.