Machine Shop Manager: Sometimes Even The Best Machine Shops End Up In Small Claims Court
Knowing how to prepare yourself can have a huge impact on the final outcome
By Michael Green
If you’re in the automotive business long enough, you may encounter the customer from Hell. I have had my fair share of trouble with unhappy, hard to please, hard to get along with customers. Over the years, I have had to sometimes give in and refund money or buy them new parts, which they may not have deserved. Or if we just couldn’t work things out, we ended up in court and let a judge determine our fate.
I will always try to solve the problem with the customer before the problem grows to the point of yelling and screaming. I will try to explain in a logical manner why we did something in a certain way or why the engine may have failed. If it’s our fault, I will always apologize, and if the customer is understanding about the problem, we will make the repairs as fast as we can and give them a little extra for their inconvenience.
From time to time, we are asked by our accounts to either write a letter or go to court to help them defend themselves from unhappy customers. I really don’t mind doing this as long as they’re in the right.
I just recently have gone to court to defend our shop from a past customer who had developed a problem with an engine that we rebuilt. Like most guys, Joe, the customer, was trying to save a buck and decided to remove the engine from his Toyota pick-up himself. Joe had appeared to have enough knowledge to handle the job. He seemed to be a nice guy, and once the job was finished, he came in and paid the bill.
About a week later, Joe gave me a call. He explained to me he was having some problems reinstalling the engine and wanted to know if I knew of a shop that would reinstall the engine for him. I recommended a shop not too far from where he lived, and after that phone call I didn’t hear from Joe for well over a year.
Then one day out-of-the-blue, Joe called me and explained that he thought that his truck might have blown a head gasket. He said the truck was overheating and wanted to know what we were going to do about it. I suggested to Joe that he should take the truck back to the shop that had installed the engine to make sure that it was, in fact, a head gasket problem.
Joe agreed to do this, and I called the repair shop manager to let him know he was having a problem and to call me with his findings. I then pulled out Joe’s invoice to review the exact work that we had performed on his engine. I noticed the engine was out of our warranty period and there weren’t any notes about problems that we may have encountered while doing the job.
A couple of days later, the repair shop manager called me with the shop’s findings; Joe was right. It had a blown head gasket. I asked the shop how many miles the truck had on it since we rebuilt the engine. The manager informed me that it had just a little over 25,000 miles on it. It wasn’t more than a couple of minutes later that Joe called demanding that we fix his truck. I informed him that the engine was out of warranty and that we would be happy to pressure test and resurface the head at no charge, but we would not warranty the whole job for him. This did not sit well with Joe. He said he would get back to me on his decision in a couple of days. Sure enough Joe did call me back, this time threatening to take us to court if we did not make the necessary repairs.
By now I was tired of Joe’s attitude and just wanted him to go away. I agreed to pay for one-half of the labor to repair the truck; this amount was $168, for which we sent a check to Joe. I was now happy thinking that Joe would be out of our lives for good.
It wasn’t more then a couple of days later and guess who was on the phone again. Joe was now calling me saying that we must have put a defective cylinder head on his truck. All the water passages in the head were eaten up, and he wanted to know what we were going to do about it. I tried to be nice about this, I explained to him that we see a lot of Toyota cylinder heads eaten up due to electrolysis and that we have no control over that kind of a problem.
I informed him again that his engine was well out of the warranty period and explained one more time that if he was willing to bring it back, we would weld the head up and resurface it, but we would not pay for anything else. This is not what Joe wanted to hear because his response was, "I guess I will see you in court."
Joe then had his truck towed to another repair shop and had the engine completely rebuilt again. After he got his truck back from the repair shop, he called me one last time to let me know that it had cost him $3,700. He wanted to give me one last chance to pay for it or he was going to take us to court. Now, I’m a patient guy, but Joe had finally used me up. I informed him that he would have to do what he felt was right.
About a week later, I was served with papers to show up in court. Joe was now suing us for the maximum amount of $5,000 in small claims court. As I began to think about this whole situation, I could not help but to become angry.
I could not stop thinking about all the help we had tried to give this guy. The money that we had already returned to him; the fact that the engine was well out of warranty; the damage caused by electrolysis over which we had no control; and now the time I was going to lose defending our shop in court.
Finally the big day arrived, and I knew I had prepared a pretty good case. I had copies of the original invoice and a copy of the invoice from the repair shop that showed the original mileage when the engine was installed. I also took a copy of the canceled check that we had refunded to Joe and several copies of different articles on electrolysis and how fast this problem can start.
As the roll call began for afternoon court, I noticed that out of eight cases to be presented in court, five were automotive related. Cases against a repair shop, a new car dealer, a body shop, one auto parts store and me seemed to round out the whole automotive industry.
Mine was the fourth case to be listened to by the judge and by the time it was my turn, it didn’t appear that the automotive business was fairing too well.
This judge seemed to have no clue about the automotive business, and he didn’t seem to care. He was rushing the cases through as though he was late to a golf game. This made me feel a little nervous, but I still felt good about our case.
After the swearing in, Joe was given the chance to explain his complaint. After Joe had finished his story, it was my turn to tell my side. I gave the judge a copy of the original invoice in which I had highlighted in green marker the date and amount. I then gave the judge a copy of our engine warranty with the one year or 12,000 mile section highlighted in green.
The judge seemed like he might be leaning my way. I then gave the judge a copy of the canceled check for the $168 that I had refunded to Joe in the beginning to help solve the problem. I felt at this point that we were painting a very nice picture of this case. I then figured that I could land a one-two punch with all the electrolysis articles that I had, and again I highlighted the important points pertaining to the case in green marker.
The judge asked me a couple of questions and said he would notify me by mail on his decision. About a week later, the judge’s decision came in the mail. I nervously opened it and read it. The judge had ruled against us and awarded Joe $650.
I could not believe what I had read! Where did the judge come up with a $650 amount? This made no sense to me at all. In my mind, I felt that we had done no wrong. However, I wonder if it may have been because my shop is in the automotive trade, a business that has a black eye for "supposedly" taking advantage of consumers.
Some of the other automotive business owners around town feel that the court system has been unfair to them also. Could it be that so many of the cases that judges have to listen to everyday are automotive related?
Or, could it be that at one time or another the judges themselves have actually suffered from a bad automotive experience. Remember that judges, like the rest of us, hate to write checks for automotive repairs.
So if you ever have to make a case in small claims court, here are some tips to remember. Documentation is without a doubt the most important item to take to court. The outcome of your case is generally determined by how well you were able to note certain problems or discussions you may have had while dealing with the customer.
Make sure you bring extra copies of your documents to give to the judge during your case. It’s always a good idea to do what I did, i.e., highlight the items that pertain to your case. Do not overload the judge with a lot to read and never over- complicate the issue. Remember, that the judge has a background in law and not in automotive science. Visual aids such as damaged or ruined parts may also help the judge to better understand the problem. Remember, one picture is worth 1,000 words for someone who may not have a working knowledge of cars.
A third party witness is always good to have, particularly if he is not affiliated with your business. He can bring creditability to your case. However, if the person you are being sued by brings in a witness, be prepared for an up hill battle, particularly if it was the person who ended up repairing the customer’s problem.
Remember, the plaintiff has to prove in court that the defendant was clearly in the wrong in order to win the case. It is the judge’s job to try to make a fair decision based on the information that was provided.
Sometimes over-elaborating can do more damage than good. Stick to the point in explaining your side of the story. Keep it simple and don’t be late to your court date. The courts will generally do a roll call, and if you are not present at that time you automatically lose.