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MN - Instant oil change place caused our car's destruction - options?

Discussion in 'Small Claims & Municipal Court' started by somecallmejim, Jul 28, 2010.

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  1. somecallmejim

    somecallmejim Law Topic Starter New Member

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    The story is as follows: A few years ago we got a 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan, which was used at the time. The previous owner (who was only the second owner) kept absolutely meticulous records. After a few months of keeping tabs on things, we concluded that the vehicle didn't leak any fluids whatsoever. Because the vehicle was in such great condition, my wife (who's prefers not to touch dipsticks) took to driving it, and we had it for over a year and a half without incident.

    Cut to late spring. We were leaving town on a 400 mile trip to visit my family. When we got on the road, it occurred to us that we were already a couple hundred miles overdue for an oil change. We could probably have made the trip without bothering, but we like to keep up our vehicles, so at the first town southwest of our town, we stopped at a small privately owned (non-chain) quick oil change place. We go sit in their waiting room, they change our oil, we pay and are on our way. We go about the trip, come home, and return to normal life.

    Things are pretty much normal until a little more than a month ago. One day my wife is on her way to work, and calls me to tell me the van is acting really funny. It's shuddering whenever she hits the gas pedal. She's close to her job (which is 35 miles away), so she just gets to work, and during the day I go down to see what's wrong. Well, what's wrong is that her car is absolutely bone dry out of oil. After letting out a string of "colorful metaphors" I go buy some oil, and take the van for a spin. Sure enough, there's a shudder when you drive it now, probably due to a spun bearing from driving without oil. The bottom line was that for the time, the vehicle was drivable, but it's days were effectively numbered.

    (I'll take a break from the story line to interject something here. The reason I am asking this question now instead of a month and a half ago was that initially I didn't assume there was any wrongdoing by the oil change place. I assumed that my wife never checks her fluids, and since we have a porous gravel driveway, we never noticed a leak that was probably there for a long time. As I'll get to in a moment, it turned out that this assumption was wrong. So if you're reading this honey - I'm sorry and I love you! :))

    Now we're up to about two weeks ago. The shuddering of the motor has been slowly getting worse, and as a result the van's alternator goes out. We find a professional (ASE certified and everything!) mechanic who's a friend of a friend, and he agrees to come out to our place to put a used alternator on for us as a favor, since why would we want to go to an expensive shop to put a new alternator on a dying vehicle?

    As he's changing the alternator, I ask him if he'd be willing to try and trace the oil leak, since for over a year the thing was sealed tight as a drum. He agrees, and towards the end of his work he gives me some shocking news. As it turned out, the oil leak was coming from nothing other than the oil filter that the oil change place had installed! Apparently, according to him, the oil filter had some damage and a pinhole leak. He thought it looked like the filter had been dropped and screwed back on, because the damage and leak were on the side that faces *away* from the road, i.e. it wasn't something caused by a random rock flying up. This also explains why we didn't notice an oil spot in our driveway, since the location on the filter isn't being exposed to oil unless the engine is on, and even when it is leaking, it's a very small (albeit very persistent) leak.

    At this point, I start documenting everything. I took pictures of the oil filter, and anything else that might help. One day we took the car to go to a movie on a rainy day, and when we got out of the car the trail of drips was very visible on the wet asphalt, so I used my phone to shoot a video of that. Basically, i wanted to be sure we had something, in case it went anywhere.

    And now we're at today. This evening my wife called on the way home, telling me that her van was finally giving up the ghost. The motor was clacking and it wouldn't make it above about 55 mph, and that was with the oil full (she checked before leaving work). She made it home, but I doubt that car is good for much more driving than a trip to the wrecker.

    So what are my legal options here? Can I take them to court? My wife can't remember us signing anything when we paid for the car and I can't find a copy of the receipt, but I know a lot of oil change places have liability clauses built into their paperwork's fine print. Does something like that hold, even when the car is totaled by their negligence?

    This isn't a matter of us trying to take these folks to the cleaners, but when we rolled into their shop, we had a car that was worth maybe $6500, and as it sits today, I'll be lucky to have a scrap yard take it for $500. Can I hold them accountable for the value lost due to their misdeed? Please advise.

    Thanks so much for your time.

    Jim
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2010
  2. army judge

    army judge Super Moderator

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    You can't hold anyone accountable for anything.
    You can sue the oil change business.
    If you prevail, a court can hold them responsible for your damages.
    You will have to PROVE, not hypothesize, that the oil change business was the proximate cause of the leak.
    The mechanic makes a good point, but it could be seen as mere conjecture.
    I suspect that IF you do sue the oil change outfit, their defense will claim the filter was new and in good order when they replaced the old filter.
    Be prepared to receive a judgment for the refund of your $30 oil change, and not the $6,000 you're seeking.
    Anyway, good luck!
     
    somecallmejim likes this.
  3. somecallmejim

    somecallmejim Law Topic Starter New Member

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    Thanks army judge. That's useful info. I forgot to mention that the oil filter they installed was a commercial brand that consumers can't buy (on another forum somebody suggested the defendant would claim it was a DIY job gone bad, so I thought I'd throw that on there in case anyone else throws their thoughts in), and interestingly, there's actually a big magic marker "x" on the filter near the hole. Now, I don't know if their policy is to mark filters when they install them, but it would make a lot more sense to me that someone marked the filter because it was bad, and the less than observant teenager who installed it didn't stop to look.

    Honestly, if I were in a better financial situation, I probably wouldn't even bother with considering this. It's going to be a whole lot of work, prep, documentation, all for like you said, might be nothing more than the cost of an oil change. But our family is broker than broke right now, and being a one car family is not an option. The bottom line is that I don't want to sue these guys, but I'd like to know if there's any merit whatsoever in the case, so that when I walk into their office with the damaged oil filter and ask them what they plan to do about this, I'd have a modicum of support when they try to push me back out the door.

    Thanks again!
     
  4. mightymoose

    mightymoose Moderator

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    You will be out of luck if you try to sue here. If anything, you would only be awarded the cost of service if the company was responsible for the leak.

    You continued to drive the vehicle a significant amount without checking the oil. You could have prevented any significant damage had you checked the oil level once in awhile when getting gas or any other regular interval.

    You won't get far trying to sue. The service shop will simply, and quite easily, argue that you did not check the fluids and that you are responsible for any damage.
     
  5. somecallmejim

    somecallmejim Law Topic Starter New Member

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    Hi moose,

    The thing is, for the year and three months we had the car prior, we never had to check the oil between changes. I did keep checking it the first few months we owned it, but it never leaked a drop. And for the 4 other oil changes before this incident, we never ever had to add oil between changes, and they never noted any lost oil when it had been changed.

    Plus, there's the matter of the timeline. We got our oil changed by this place on about March 20th. The motor blew up on us about June 10th. That's not even the full three months that we were accustomed to driving the car between changes!

    I can also prove that when a vehicle needs checking, we do check it regularly. My van has a small oil leak, and so I do check my van's oil every other week or so, and I can find receipts for the oil I've purchased for my van between oil changes to show that. So it's not just a matte of people being irresponsible. The bottom line is that this vehicle had a track record of never losing a drop of oil in a three month gap, and this time, a week and a half before we even got to the three month point, it was bone dry. And while we did continue to drive it after the initial damage on about the 10th, we then religiously checked the oil several times a week, not knowing that the leak was caused by the filter until just a little more than a week ago.
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2010
  6. mightymoose

    mightymoose Moderator

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    I understand that you felt the car was in great condition and didn't need to be checked, but that won't be any defense when you are accused of not checking it.
    it was an aging vehicle and was going to spring a leak sooner or later.
    Bottom line, the mechanic's negligence does not excuse you, the owner, from your own responsibility of maintaining the vehicle.
    Had you discovered this leak sooner you would have a much better argument. I do agree that the leak was likely the fault of the mechanic, but I don't think you will have any luck seeking compensation for the damage since you didn't fulfill your own responsibility as the owner.
     
  7. somecallmejim

    somecallmejim Law Topic Starter New Member

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    Hi again moose,

    First off, and i am dead serious when I say this, thank you for your candor here. It's exactly what I was hoping to find. If I do wind up trying to take this to court (and I REALLY don't want it to come to that), I want to be prepared for the questions you're asking, so bear with me as I try to flesh out some of my thoughts here.

    The one thing that might or might not make a difference is that I do know a lot more about cars than most people. Besides having driven every clunker in America growing up, my dad was an ASE certified mechanic for a period of his life, and I spent a lot of time helping in his garage. I have a good chunk of knowledge when it comes to cars. The problem, and the reason I wound up having a mechanic do the work towards the end of my story, is that in our current rental situation I just don't have the tools, space, or time to work on our cars ourself.

    Despite that, when we got the car the very first thing I did was take it to my father in law's place, park it in his garage, and poke around. In all my searching, the only issue I found was a slightly warped water inlet on the engine, which is pretty normal considering that the car had over 100,000 miles on it and aluminum components warp. I replaced that part though, and as I said, I checked all of the fluid levels like a hawk for the first couple months we owned the car. My conclusion was that the car didn't leak at all. I mean literally, the dipstick read "full" the first time we took it to our mechanic to have the oil changed. After that I eased up on monitoring, not because I was slacking off, but because I know cars. Even at the last oil change, the one that caused this issue, when they checked the oil before draining it, it read "full" on the dipstick.

    And that's where I think the issue comes in. If a car springs a leak, unless it's a catastrophic leak like a main seal or head gasket, there's no way you could go from not leaking at all to loosing what works out to almost a solid quart every other week. Then, if it was one of those big catastrophic leaks, you would know immediately when the leak took place, because you would lose power and have all sorts of motor trouble before the oil was even completely gone.

    Besides that, if the leak were a conventional leak (a gasket or seal) it would leak all the time, even when the car was parked. At the rate it was losing oil, that would leave HUGE oil stains everywhere it went. But because the leak was in this faulty filter (again, which even had a big x marked on it), we were able to lose oil rapidly in such a way that it only leaked while the car was in motion, since the leak is on the top of the filter and it isn't in contact with oil unless the motor is on and under driving pressure. That's why it didn't leave oil spots in parking stalls for us to even notice, as the oil only leaked while the vehicle was in gear and moving.

    I guess what I'm saying was that we weren't ignoring the car. I was monitoring it at 3 month intervals, and at each interval right to the end, the oil never leaked at all, not a drop. The car ran out of oil and torched the engine literally two months, two and a half weeks after the oil change. Had the leak been a little slower, we would have caught it in a week and a half. But again, it's NOT normal for a car to jump from not leaking a single drop of oil in three months to losing 5 quarts in less than that same time frame. Normal would be for a leak to gradually build, where at the next change you see a slightly lower level, and I have a current, ASE certified mechanic who will agree with me on that.

    Sorry for the length of this, and sorry if it sounds like I'm being defensive. I'm not. I'm just trying to get my thoughts out there and try to build this into the best case I can, in case I have to fight this thing. I know the situation looks bleak. I've even considered dropping my pride and going on one of those "People's court" type shows, since even if you lose you take away a couple grand for showing up. Ideally the owner of the shop is going to see that he caused this issue and willingly shell out what it would take to make me whole, but I would guess the odds of that happening are about one in a googolplex.

    Thanks again.
     
  8. mightymoose

    mightymoose Moderator

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    How much is the damage anyway?

    If you were suing me I would be stressing the point that it is the owner's responsibility to regularly check the fluids and maintain the vehicle. From what you have said here, you likely drove well over 1,000 miles without checking the oil. Granted, not many people do check their oil as often as is recommended by the manufacturer, but it would still be a reasonable defense against your claim.

    Your experience might support your claim that you have knowledge of vehicles and are meticulous with their maintenance, however the same can be used against you. Someone that has such knowledge would surely be familiar with standard preventative maintenance and check the oil level at regular intervals.

    Personally, I don't see you getting anything out of court other than the value of the service that you paid. I simply don't see you being awarded an amount to cover the damage... but I suppose it is possible you could receive a partial amount, if a jduge decides the responsibility is shared.

    Unless you are talking about well over $1,000 damage I wouldn't bother.
     
  9. somecallmejim

    somecallmejim Law Topic Starter New Member

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    Thanks moose.

    The only remedy for the problem is a complete engine rebuild or replacement. Rebuild can cost up to $2k, replacement is $3k or a bit more. That's a BIG expense for a car that blue books right around $7k.
     
  10. mightymoose

    mightymoose Moderator

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    Well for that amount you might want to try... but don't expect full compensation. You might get lucky and get a lesser amount.

    Your first step is to return to the shop and present the issue to the owner. See what they have to tell you in person. After that you will want to send them a formal demand letter (sent to their legal agent, not necessarily the store itself). If you make no progress then just make sure you have all your information in order and proceed with small claims court.You will want the mechanic that discovered the leak to be present with you.
     

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