Can I Sue Over a Used Car History Document or Service?
Yes, you may be able to sue over a vehicle history report. You could go after the company that prepared the report or the dealer you bought the car from.
FindLaw focuses here on suing a company that prepares vehicle history reports (VHRs). If you are interested in learning more about suing a dealer for lying to you about a car's history or the work done on the vehicle, FindLaw discusses that in How to Sue a Car Dealer for Misrepresentation.
While you may have a valid claim to bring a legal action against a VHR company, it isn't always easy or straightforward. If you are considering suing a VHR company, you may want to consult with an experienced consumer protection attorney.
Your options depend on which company you obtained your VHR from. Several companies sell VHRs, but the two big ones are Carfax and Experian's AutoCheck. In this article, FindLaw discusses these two companies.
What Is a Vehicle History Report?
Vehicle history reports are a helpful tool when buying a used car. The key to a VHR is the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). The 17-digit VIN is used to record every major event in a car's history.
Based on the VIN, a VHR will contain a summary and overall evaluation of the car, along with dates, locations, and details. You can see if a car has been registered in multiple states. Other information can include the following:
- A description of a vehicle
- The number of previous owners
- Accident information
- Confirmation of recent mileage
- Lemon Law and recall checks
Most importantly, you can learn if a car has “branded title" or “salvage title," which means that an insurance company has declared a car a total loss due to, for example, an accident, a flood, or some other catastrophe. This information about the condition, service, and maintenance history makes searching for a used car much easier.
What You Don't Get on a VHR
VHRs are not perfect. They are made up of events that are reported to the company. If the VHR company hasn't heard about it, it won't show up on the VHR. If the information the company gets is inaccurate, that inaccurate information will show up on the report.
For example, if you are in a minor accident but don't want to get your insurance company involved, the accident will not show up in the VHR. Similarly, if you get your car serviced at a shop that does not report repairs to VHR companies, the work will not show up on a report. Make sure that if you are buying a used car, you consider getting a pre-purchase inspection.
How Do You Get a VHR?
There are generally two ways to get a VHR. The first is directly from a company's website. Make sure you get your VHR from a reputable company. There are a lot of scams out there, so you want to be careful. A single report is generally less than $50.
The second way is directly from a used car dealer. Dealerships have agreements with the major VHR companies and will typically provide a free VHR to interested buyers.
When Might You Want to Sue?
Here's how you may end up wanting to sue a VHR company. Suppose you are searching online for a new car. You find one you like at Fred's Used Cars. You've not been to Fred's before, but you like the look of the car. So you head on over there and meet up with a sales agent.
After a pleasant test drive, you tell the agent you are interested in the car. She runs a Carfax report and hands it to you. “Clean Carfax report," she says. You're really not sure what that means, but you don't want to look stupid, so you just glance over the report and nod. You decide to buy the car. “As Is," the Buyer's Guide says.
Here's what you see when you skim over the language at the bottom of the VHR (as of March 2022):
CARFAX DEPENDS ON ITS SOURCES FOR THE ACCURACY AND RELIABILITY OF ITS INFORMATION. THEREFORE, NO RESPONSIBILITY IS ASSUMED BY CARFAX OR ITS AGENTS FOR ERRORS OR OMISSIONS IN THIS REPORT. CARFAX FURTHER EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING ANY IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.
What this means is best explained through an example.
On your way home from the dealer, the used car you just bought starts shaking. Rather than go back to Fred's, you take the car over to Bob, your trusty mechanic. He breaks the bad news to you — your car previously sustained significant frame damage that wasn't reflected in the Carfax report. The car is not worth repairing. You are stuck without a warranty and out the money you paid Fred.
Recovering Losses From a VHR Company
Let's start with Carfax. The report the used auto dealer gave you includes the language quoted above. As you can see, Carfax expressly states that it is not responsible for any “errors or omissions" in the report.
It further “disclaims" — repudiates — any warranties. A “warranty" is a guaranty given by a seller to a buyer that a product meets a level of quality and reliability. By disclaiming any warranties, Carfax avoids legal responsibility for any mistakes in its reports. This language makes it much harder to get legal relief from Carfax.
Small Claims Court
Maybe your damages are more than the small claims court will handle. If you want to try to get around the limitation on damages, you will need to pursue arbitration. Arbitration is a dispute resolution process that takes place out of court. Many people believe it is faster, less expensive, and more efficient than going to court.
Here's how it would work. You and Carfax would select an independent third party called an arbitrator. The arbitrator would review the submissions of the parties, look at the evidence, and hear arguments. After consideration, the arbitrator would issue a decision. That decision binds the parties. You generally cannot appeal an arbitrator's decision.
Although some arbitrations are straightforward, many are complicated. Most often, people hire lawyers to represent them in arbitrations. If you are interested in arbitrating a claim, you should strongly consider consulting an experienced arbitration attorney. They can represent you, provide you with legal advice, and help you select an appropriate arbitrator.
Arbitration Opt-Out Option
On the bright side, Carfax does offer a buyback guarantee, limited as it may be. If publicly available information relating to the quality of the title of the vehicle is not included in a report, Carfax will buy the car back from you.
Now let's look at AutoCheck. AutoCheck's terms and conditions similarly limit damages to the amount you paid for your report (which is about $25). They also disclaim any warranties, which makes it even harder to get any relief.
If you do decide to try to recover damages from AutoCheck, you can bring a lawsuit, and it does not have to be in small claims court. Nor is there an arbitration requirement. But you must bring your lawsuit in Cook County, Illinois. Once again, unless you live near there, filing a lawsuit may not be worth the expense.
AutoCheck also has a buyback guaranty. It's a little more generous than Carfax's, but it still is limited to a situation where publicly available information relating to the quality of title is not included in a report.
Consider Consulting a Lawyer
As you can see, trying to recover damages from a VHR company is an uphill battle. You have to avoid limitations on liability and disclaimers of warranties, which courts generally tend to enforce. You may have a better shot recovering from the used car dealer than from the VHR company.
If you are considering bringing a lawsuit, consider consulting an experienced consumer protection attorney. They will be able to advise you of your legal rights and help you decide what your best options are in your situation. Keep in mind that you have a limited time under the law in which to bring a lawsuit, so consider acting promptly.
Was this helpful?