How to Handle a Motor Vehicle Repair Case

By , J.D. · New York University School of Law

Imagine that you go to the auto repair shop to pick up your trusty old steed after a complete engine overhaul. The bill, which you agreed to pay in advance, is $1,225. This always seemed a little steep, but the mechanic talked you into it by claiming he would do a great job and that the overhauled engine should last another 50,000 miles. At any rate, you write a check and drive out of the garage in something approaching a cheerful mood. As you head up the first hill, you start to hear a funny noise. You drive back to the garage in a sour mood. Not only are you out $1,225, but your car runs worse than it did when you brought it in.

After a bit of foot stomping, you get someone to say that they will look over the car. The next day you call the garage. Nothing has been done. You yell at the garage owner and then call your bank to stop payment on the check, but it already has been cashed. The next day the garage owner tells you the problem is in a part of the engine they didn't work on. "Give us another $500 and we can surely solve this new problem." You pick up your mechanical friend and drive it home–very slowly. You are furious and decide to pursue every legal remedy, no matter what the trouble. How do you start? First, park your car, take a shower, and maybe sleep on it for a night. Nothing gets decided well when you're mad. Then, you'll need to decide whether you want to take action.

To start, ask yourself these two key questions:

  • Have you suffered a loss?
  • Can you prove the defendant's negligence caused your loss?

The first question is easy. Your car works worse than it did before you paid a lot of money to have it fixed. Clearly, you have suffered a loss.

The second question is tougher. The car now works less well than before you had it fixed, and you are convinced that a lousy repair job caused your problem. But in this type of case, it's likely the garage owner will claim the work was done properly and that the car simply needs more work. For all the judge knows, this may even be true. In short, to win this type of case it's your job to prove that the repair work was not up to a reasonable standard of competence. Doing so will make your case; failing to do so will break it.

Collect Available Evidence

Gather all the relevant evidence, pronto. In this situation, this means getting your used parts (it's a good idea to do this any time you have major work done). If the garage will not give them to you, ask again by letter, keeping a copy for your file. If you get the parts, fine–if you don't, you have evidence that the garage is badly run or has something to hide.

Have Your Car Checked by an Expert

Before you drive many miles after the disputed work is done, have your car checked by an experienced mechanic. Sometimes it is possible to get a free estimate from a repair shop. In this situation, however, you are probably better off paying someone to look at the engine thoroughly, with the understanding that if the need arises, the mechanic will testify on your behalf in small claims court–or at the very least, will write a letter stating what's wrong with the engine. A few states require that you present three written estimates in small claims court. Whether this is required or not in your state, it's a good idea to have them.

Try to Settle

By now you should have a pretty good idea what the first garage did wrong. Call and ask them to redo the job or refund part or all of your money. Often the repair shop will agree to do additional work to avoid a hassle. If they agree to take the car back, insist on a written agreement detailing what they will do and how long it will take. Also, talk to the mechanic who will actually work on the car to be sure you both have the same understanding about what needs to be done. You may be a little paranoid about taking your car back to the garage that just screwed it up. Nevertheless, unless they have proven themselves outrageously incompetent, this is probably your best approach because it's usually easier to get work redone than it is to get a big refund. Also, if you sue and the garage owner shows up in court and says he offered to work on the car again but you refused, it may weaken your case.

Write a Demand Letter

If the garage isn't cooperative, it's time to write a formal demand letter. Your letter should be short, polite, and written with an eye to a judge reading it.

Be sure to emphasize any promise made by the garage. Most small independent garages don't make a written warranty or guarantee on their work. However, if you were given any promises in writing, mention them in your letter. Also, if you were promised things orally about the quality of the work the garage planned to do and you relied on these statements as part of your decision to authorize the repairs, make sure the letter describes this express oral warranty.

File Your Court Papers

If you still get no satisfactory response from the garage, file your papers at the small claims court clerk's office in the county where the garage is located.

Prepare Your Case

If you want the judge to understand your case, you must understand it yourself. Sounds simple, doesn't it? It did to me too, until I got involved with a case involving a botched car repair. All I knew was that after I paid to have the engine fixed, the car shouldn't belch black smoke and make a disgusting noise. I really wasn't interested in the details.

Fortunately, I realized that arguing a case in small claims court with this level of ignorance would likely end in a bad loss. To be able to convince a judge that the mechanic had ripped me off, I needed to do some homework. After all, I could expect the people from the garage to show up in court with a terrific-sounding story about the wonderful job they did with pistons, bearings, and camshaft. I had seen other people unsuccessfully argue car repair cases knowing no more than "the car was supposed to be fixed, Your Honor, and it's worse than ever."

It turned out that a 15-minute conversation with a knowledgeable mechanic was all I really needed to understand what the first mechanic did wrong. (Also, my local library had several car manuals, complete with diagrams, which were a big help.) In court, armed with this knowledge, I had no trouble explaining to the judge that the mechanic had done a substandard job. I got a judgment for the full amount I had paid.

Remember, the judge is probably not a mechanic. It's important to pay attention to the human being to whom you are presenting your case. It's no secret that many, if not most, small claims judges don't understand the insides of cars any better than you do. So be prepared to make a convincing presentation to a person who nods his or her head but doesn't really understand the difference between the drive shaft and the axle.

Appearing in Court

When you show up in court, be sure that you are well organized. Bring all the letters you have written or received about your car problem, any written warranty, photographs if they are helpful, and your used parts if they aid in making your case. If you have a witness to oral statements made by the garage, be sure to bring that person with you to court. Or if that's impossible, ask the person to write a letter explaining what he or she heard. Also, be sure to present any letter(s) written by an independent expert(s) who has arranged to examine your car. Even one cogent letter from an experienced mechanic, explaining how the repair job was botched, when combined with your own informed presentation, can make you a winner.

If you are well prepared you should win the sort of case outlined here without difficulty. Judges drive cars and have to get them fixed; they tend to be sympathetic with this type of consumer complaint. Simply present your story, your documentation, and your witnesses. If you feel that your opponent is snowing the judge with a lot of technical lingo, get things back on track by asking that all jargon be explained in ordinary English. This will be a relief to everyone in the courtroom except your opponent.

A good drawing can help. In cases involving machinery, people can give effective testimony by presenting a large drawing illustrating the mistake or problem. This approach is most effective when your expert appears in court and authoritatively points to the drawing to detail the problem.