Can I Sue Quick Car Maintenance Services Like Oil Changes, Tires, and Brakes?
Yes, you can sue a car maintenance shop like Valvoline or Jiffy Lube if you can show they performed service in a negligent way and that you suffered direct and foreseeable losses as a result. Those losses would include at least your out-of-pocket costs and, depending on where you live and if there were any personal injuries involved, maybe substantially more.
If your losses are small, you may be able to handle the dispute yourself. But if your losses are big (especially if you or someone else were injured), you should consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer where you live.
Auto Repair Shops Provide Many Different Services
Auto repair and car maintenance shops don't just do oil changes. They advertise all sorts of services, from tire rotation to engine repair, windshield wiper replacement to transmission work. Some advertised services include, for example:
- Brake pad replacement
- Air filter and oil filter replacement
- Wheel alignment and other tire services (some even sell new tires)
- Brake fluid, motor oil, and other fluid (like coolant) replacement
- Brake repair
- Air conditioning servicing
- Gasket and seal replacement
- Hoses and rotors servicing
Dealership vs. Car Maintenance Service: Which to Choose
You have options when the check engine light goes on. You don't have to bring your car to the dealership just for preventative maintenance or regular service. According to federal law, basic vehicle maintenance and vehicle service do not, in most instances, void any warranty you may have. That would include things like oil changes and tire rotation.
Your choices are more limited if you are relying upon an extended warranty. An extended warranty is not included in the price of your vehicle. It is a separate service contract you pay for on top of the price of the vehicle.
Read the language of your service contract carefully. Most say that certain work must be performed by specifically approved repair shops, such as those certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). If you don't use an approved shop, you breach the service contract and any damages you experience as a result of the work done will not be covered.
An Example of What Can Go Wrong: A Hypothetical
Here's an example of what can go wrong and what you can do about it.
Suppose you're taking your family on a summer road trip to Yellowstone. You bring your trusty, reliable Toyota in for an oil change at Big Bad Car Service, Inc. While the car is up, you ask them as an afterthought to rotate your tires. In a few minutes, you're ready to go. Or so you think.
You drive away, and the car feels, well, off. You attribute it to uneven wear on the tires — it had been a long time since you last had them rotated.
Tire Rotation Goes South
But it doesn't get better. You're driving across North Dakota and the car vibrates. You initially think it's the road, but you wonder if you may be getting a flat. You pull over at a rest stop and check. Nothing looks wrong. So back on the road you go.
Wild Montana Skies
Now you're driving the speed limit (which is 80 miles an hour) on I-94 across Montana. All of a sudden, the car violently shakes. You're certain you have a flat, so you immediately get off at the next exit (which thankfully is about 100 yards away). You pull over, hop out, then check your tire. It looks fine, but you notice that you are missing a lug nut. Something is seriously wrong.
This time you have your adult son hop out and watch as you drive up the exit ramp. Sure enough, the tire vigorously rocks back and forth, as if the lug nuts had been tightened only about halfway. When you get to the top of the ramp, you pull out your trusty tire iron and see if they need to be tightened. You quickly discover, when the bolts shear off, that they had been overtightened.
Many Thanks to the Courteous Folks of Forsyth
That leaves you stranded about ten miles west of Forsyth, Montana without a workable car in blistering heat. Thanks, Big Bad.
You call for a tow to the nearest repair shop, spend what turns out to be a surprisingly great night at a local motel, and a skillful and talented mechanic has you back on the road by noon the next day. You had a paid reservation at a place about an hour and a half away, but they let you cancel with a refund when they hear of your plight.
What Are Your Losses?
Thankfully, and perhaps miraculously, no one was hurt. But you are still, putting it mildly, crabby.
You are out the cost of the tire rotation, the towing and repair fees, the motel room fees, and the cost of a delicious, albeit expensive, pizza. Worst of all, however, you lost the afternoon you had intended to spend the next day hiking in Yellowstone. And to top it all off, you now have a migraine.
What, if anything, can you recover from Big Bad?
Negligence Claims Against A Car Maintenance Shop
You would have a negligence claim. Although state law varies a little, you generally have to prove four things to make out a legal claim for negligence.
The first element is duty. You would need to show that the car maintenance shop owed you a duty of care. In this context, this element is easy. In exchange for money, a vehicle maintenance shop assumes a duty to you.
That duty is to act with reasonable care. That means that Big Bad must perform the tire rotation as a reasonably prudent vehicle maintenance shop in the same or similar circumstances. They don't have to be experts (even if they advertise that they are ASE-certified), they just have to act reasonably.
The second element is a breach of that duty. That means that you have to show that the car maintenance shop failed to perform the work in a reasonably prudent way. In other words, you have to show that they acted negligently.
This element is harder here. You have to be able to present proof that the shop did the work negligently. In our example, you could come up with all sorts of possible reasons for the tire problem. Maybe someone sabotaged your car while it was parked at a rest stop. Who knows? A judge won't just take your word for it — you typically need a mechanic or some other expert to show that the service work was done wrong.
Res Ipsa Loquitur
There is a legal theory that might help in our example. It's called “res ipsa loquitur." That's Latin for “the thing speaks for itself." To rely on this theory, you would need to show:
- The incident does not ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence
- It was caused by something that was within the shop's control (some states require it to be within the shop's exclusive control)
- You did not contribute to the cause
To play this out, you would need to present evidence that the tires were fine before you brought your car to Big Bad (which they were), that your car was under Big Bad's control (which it was), and that you didn't touch the tires (which you didn't).
Res ipsa loquitur allows a court to presume that the shop acted negligently. The shop could still offer evidence that it did the work properly, but this theory would give you a leg up by putting the burden on Big Bad. Because the law varies from state to state, you may want to consider consulting a lawyer if you need to rely on res ipsa loquitur.
The third element is causation. You would need to show that the damages you suffered were a direct and foreseeable result of the shop's negligence.
In our example, you would show that the reason your tire almost fell off (and everything else you went through) was that Big Bad did the tire rotation wrong.
Assuming you could show that Big Bad breached its duty to act as a reasonably prudent car maintenance shop, either by an expert or through res ipsa loquitur, you would be able to connect Big Bad's negligence to your losses. So causation in our example is not too hard to prove.
The fourth and final element is damage. The law will not compensate you for everything you believe you're owed. It will only allow you to recover for what is called legally cognizable damages. And those depend on the nature of your claim.
Let's go back to our example. Thankfully, no one was hurt. You could have been killed. You could have hit another car and hurt someone else. Had personal injuries been involved, the shop would be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages, including medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
Nonetheless, you have a lot to complain about. You may believe that you should be able to recover for everything bad that happened to you because of Big Bad's negligence. That could include:
- The cost of the tire rotation
- The towing and repair fees
- The local motel room fees
- The cost of your pizza
- The time you lost from Yellowstone
- The migraine you got having to deal with all of this
You probably can recover for some, but not all, of these. Depending on the state you're in, you should be able to get the cost of the tire rotation, towing fees, and repair fees.
You would have a harder time recovering for the cost of the pizza and the hotel — you needed to eat and sleep somewhere anyway, so those expenses are not necessarily a result of Big Bad's negligence — and you would be very lucky if you could recover for the time lost, let alone your headache. A lawyer could help you determine precisely what your legally cognizable damages are and what you may be able to recover.
Consider Consulting a Lawyer
The stakes in our example aren't all that high. The bad tire rotation proved to be an inconvenience, nothing more. You are not out a lot of money. And you are planning on going back to Yellowstone next summer anyway.
Just as a matter of good customer service, Big Bad might compensate you without an argument. You would send them a demand letter when you got home, along with receipts and any pictures or videos you may have taken (and save the sheared-off lug nuts, if you can). If they don't agree to cover your out-of-pocket costs, you could get a mechanic to testify for you and bring them to small claims court. You might be able to handle this yourself.
If someone were injured, however, you should strongly consider consulting an experienced personal injury attorney in your area. A good attorney can help you better understand what your rights are and at least give you leverage when you are negotiating with the car maintenance shop or its insurance company.
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