There are many legal strategies for dealing with Lemon Law disputes, but the best way to preempt such claims is to simply to keep your customers happy.
“Happy customers don’t sue. Do what you can to keep the customer happy. Treat them well,” Amanda Heitz, an associate attorney with Minneapolis, Minn.-based Bowman and Brooke LLP, one of the nation’s top law firms specializing in product liability disputes, told dealers at last week’s (Feb. 22) California Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association’s (CalRVDA) annual meeting.
Heitz and Richard L. Stuhlbarg, a partner with Bowman and Brooke, which has tried cases in more than 350 courthouses in 48 states as well as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and several Canadian provinces, offered their advice on ways dealers can work to protect themselves from Lemon Law complaints during CalRVDA’s annual gathering at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage, Calif. And they warned dealers not to take their advice lightly.
“You have a big target on your back,” Heitz said, noting that RVs are big ticket items that provide unscrupulous attorneys with “a lot of motivation to bring in shady claims,” particularly considering laws that allow attorneys to collect fees simply for settling a case – cases that invariably cost money in legal fees and in terms of lost staff and sales time. “Your people are going to be called in for depositions. They aren’t going to be on your lot selling vehicles. They’re not going to be in your shop repairing vehicles. It’s money out of your pocket,” she said.
Aside from treating consumers as best they can, Heitz said there are a number of things dealers can do to protect themselves and improve their defenses against Lemon Law claims, including:
- Prepare your customers so that they have realistic expectations about their RV. Let them know that repairs may be needed, just like with any car or house.
- Be careful how you talk to customers when discussing warranties, and don’t promise “bumper to bumper” coverage.
- Train your sales and service people so that they clearly understand the coverage that warranties provide.
- Make sure your purchase agreements contain conspicuous disclaimers.
- Make sure your limitations and disclosures are conspicuous in all documentation and signage, using different fonts and colors so that critical language cannot be overlooked by the customer.
- Clarify in your documentation who is the warrantor. The documents should state that the warranties provided are not from the dealership itself, but from the companies that manufactured the products in question. Point out, for example, that the refrigerator in the RV is warranted by the company that made the refrigerator.
- Ensure that your documents comply with the requirements of the states in which you do business.
• When you have your customers sign documents, make sure you save the signed copies. Heitz said it doesn’t do attorneys any good if you had customers sign documents, but didn’t save them. Electronic signatures on documents are OK, but they need to be stored.
- Make sure you don’t lose your temper in email communication with customers. Think about how the text of an angry email from you or your staff will look in front of a jury.
- Make accurate notes of your customers’ concerns on service orders. Be sure to note on invoices if the problem is normal or not. Use these documents to create a paper trail that could help protect you later in court.
- Be sure to document when a customer called to report a problem, when they brought the vehicle in for repair, and how much mileage it had on it.
- Be nice no matter what. “Sometimes your customers are nasty, irate and irrational. Be nice anyway,” Heitz said.
- Always be professional and have another staff member accompany you to serve as a witness when you are dealing with customers with complaints.
- If you get into a dilemma, call the manufacturer and ask for help. Let them know early on if there is a problem. They may be able to offer assistance.
- Keep in mind that you can create good will with a customer by repairing things that are not covered by a warranty.