MONTPELIER — The lemons that left a sour taste in the mouths of some car buyers last year have prompted a new effort to shield consumers from the unwitting purchase of defective used automobiles.
“As is” provisions in existing law prevent the attorney general’s office from offering much more than shrugged shoulders to the used-vehicle buyers who call the Consumer Assistance Program seeking recourse.
“What we’ve been hearing over time is lots of complaints from people who buy a used car and a day or a week or a few weeks later, something awful happens — the transmission goes or the engine goes or there are some other major problems,” Assistant Attorney General Jill Abrams told the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development on Wednesday.
Convinced that the principle of “buyer, beware” hasn’t sufficiently protected consumer interests, Abrams said the attorney general’s office wants to impose a pro forma warranty on cars and trucks whose sale price exceeds $4,000.
The warranty would last for 30 days, or 2,000 miles, whichever comes first. Legislative drafters have already dubbed it the “lemon aid” bill.
“We’re talking about major problems,” Abrams said. “If the turn signal doesn’t work, that doesn’t give you the right to take it back to the dealer. But if an axle fails, it would.”
The legislation would also allow a buyer to void a sale if the vehicle failed inspection within 10 days of the purchase, and if the cost of the repairs to meet inspection standards exceeded 10 percent of the vehicle’s price.
The attorney general’s Consumer Assistance Program fielded nearly 300 automobile-related complaints last year, ranking it second among complaint categories, behind only “banking, credit and finance.”
The legislation would affect only “dealers” — people selling four or more vehicles per year — and would include a provision waiving the warranty for certain transactions.
Rep. Anne Donahue, a Northfield Republican who will be one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said she believes many consumers need heightened protections when it comes to the purchase of used vehicles. But she said she didn’t want to interfere with the sale of less-than-perfect cars or trucks to buyers who know what they’re getting into.
“Someone who’s mechanically inclined might just want to do the work themselves,” Donahue said.
Abrams said her office would draft a document “written in really plain English” that, when signed by both dealer and buyer, would ensure the car is being sold as is.
Abrams said her office is preparing two other automobile-related consumer protection proposals, including one that comes in response to complaints about mechanics’ bills and the considerable leverage repairmen can wield over their clients.
The long-standing “artisan’s lien law” allows service providers of any sort — be they dry cleaners or auto mechanics — to withhold property until the bill is paid.
Abrams said her division has seen an influx of calls from car owners who, presented with bills higher than the repair price quoted, faced the option of not paying or leaving without their car.
“We hear consumers who say, ‘They told me it would be $100, but (they charged me more) and they had me over a barrel and I had to pay to get it back,” Abrams said.
The proposed legislation would require mechanics to get authorization for any repair over $100. Abrams said the authorization could be given over the phone.
Another provision looks to address the difficulty some people have had recovering their towed vehicles.
“We’ve had a number of complaints from people who have difficulty after their car has been towed, as a result of an accident or other problem, in determining where the car has gone and how much it’s going to cost them to get it back,” Abrams said.
Scenarios include cars impounded after the arrest of someone caught driving drunk, or incidents in which a driver is sent to the hospital after an accident.
The legislation would require the towing service, “if the motorist is with the car at the time it’s being towed and has their wits about them,” to provide a piece of paper indicating where and when the driver can get the vehicle and how much it will cost to store it there in the meantime.
If the motorist isn’t there, or is ill equipped for the conversation, the legislation directs the police to provide to the towing service the name and address of the person to whom the vehicle is registered. The towing service then has 72 hours to mail relevant information to the owner.
A lobbyist for the Vermont Automobile Dealers Association said the organization is reviewing the proposals.
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