Consumers' Rights When They Visit an Auto Mechanic

Defining deceptive and unlawful repair practices in New Jersey

If you own a car or truck, you will inevitably need to get it repaired at some point. Dealing with an auto mechanic is often a bad experience for vehicle owners; not only is their vehicle in need of repair, they also often feel like they are being taken advantage of. And in some cases, it is not just a feeling–the mechanic or dealership actually is doing something that is not on the up-and-up.

To help protect New Jersey car owners from shady repair practices, the state has adopted a fairly comprehensive set of regulations. The New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the New Jersey Auto Repairs Deceptive Practices Regulations are considered some of the strictest of its kind in the nation. These regulations make it clear what a customer has the right to expect when taking their vehicle in for servicing or repairs.

A Repair Shop's Obligations Under New Jersey Law

First, it is important to define who the regulations cover. An “automotive repair dealer” includes anyone who takes money in exchange for the “maintenance, diagnosis or repair” of a motor vehicle. This includes the dealership where you purchased your vehicle if they provide any of these services, including the simple replacement of a part.

A covered repair dealer, including its employees, may not make any “untrue or misleading” statement to you as the customer in connection with the diagnosis or repair of your vehicle. Nor can the dealer make any false promises in order to convince you to approve of a particular repair or service. Basically, at a minimum, a repair dealer is expected to be upfront and truthful with you at all times.

If the dealer believes repairs are necessary to your vehicle, they must first give you a written estimate. The estimate itself can take several forms under New Jersey regulations. For example, the dealer can give you a total “not-to-exceed” price for the repair, an itemized breakdown of the parts and labor, or the price to complete a specific repair.

After you receive the dealer's estimate, you must give your authorization before any work can proceed. Normally this authorization must be given in writing, i.e., you need to sign paperwork directing the dealer to proceed. However, if you take your vehicle in for repair after normal business hours, or someone else brings your car in, verbal authorization is permitted under the regulations.

As the repairs proceed, the dealer needs your written or oral authorization if they wish to use additional parts or labor that exceed any previously quoted written estimate. And once the repairs are completed, the dealer must give you a detailed invoice of all work performed, with itemized charges for parts and labor, as well as the sourcing of those parts.

Red Flags to Watch For

Despite the laws, Jonathan Rudnick, an attorney in Tinton Falls, says the most common way repair shops run afoul of the law is by hitting people with unauthorized bills. “What will happen is, somebody will bring [their car] in, and when they come to pick it up, [the repair shop] presents them with a $5,000 bill. And the owner says, ‘Well, I didn’t authorize that,’ and they say, ‘Well, you needed it. So we did it.’”

Unfortunately, it’s difficult for consumers to fight unauthorized bills at the shop. “They don’t have their car,” Rudnick explains. “The repair shop has all the leverage and consumers actually have very little way of fighting. And by the time they’ve gotten to me, they’ve usually had to pay it to get their car back.”

Vehicle owners should be watchful with insurance repairs as well. “Let’s say you take it there for an insurance estimate, so they have you sign a blanket authorization to do whatever repairs they want to do,” Rudnick says. “Just because an insurance company’s repairing a vehicle, it doesn’t mean they’re authorized to do what they wish. And then when the insurance company doesn’t want to pay for it, the body shop goes back to the owner and says ‘You’ve got to pay me, the insurance company wouldn’t pay for it.’”

Another common complaint Rudnick sees is shops that put an excessive number of miles on a vehicle while it’s in their care.

Lastly, Rudnick notes that repair shops need to have their rates, as well as rules and regulations posted in writing. “If it ain’t in there, run the hell out,” he says.

What Should I Do If I'm Dissatisfied with My Dealer?

If your dealer does not follow the procedures described above, or you are dissatisfied with any repair work performed, you should first address your concerns to the owner or manager of the dealership or service shop. If that does not fully address your concerns, you can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

Or, “contact a lawyer who knows the regulations to do what needs to be done on this,” Rudnick says.

If the dealer has, in fact, violated New Jersey law, you may not only be able to get your money back, you may be entitled to triple your damages–whatever your ascertainable loss is–plus legal fees.

Rudnick has some advice for vehicle owners: “Always get a second opinion,” he says, and “everything has to be authorized. I don’t care who’s paying. If it’s my car, I’m the owner. And I authorize whatever repairs need to be done.”

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