Claims for Defective Cars

Consumers who believe they have been sold a defective car have a number of potential legal remedies they can pursue. Maryland’s highest Court last week addressed what type of proof a car owner may need to collect for sale of an allegedly defective used car. The case of Crickenberger v. Hyndai provides some guidance for plaintiffs who want to make such claims.

According to the Court’s opinion, Crickenberger in 2001 purchased a used Hyundai from a dealer. The vehicle had previously been a Hertz rental car, and had 8911 miles on it at the time of sale. The dealer provided a limited warranty, since it was a used vehicle. Ms. Crickenberger had no records of what type of maintenance Hertz may have done on the car, or even if it had ever been in an accident.

She produced some records regarding oil changes over several years on the vehicle, which the court said were not done at intervals recommended by the manufacturer. The plaintiff then claimed that she had a variety of problems with the vehicle over several years, including needing a fuel pump and a battery. She had an accident with the car in 2003, and then problems escalated in 2004. By February 2005 the car had 63,700 miles on it and stopped running altogether. When the dealer refused to replace her engine, she sued.

Ms. Crickenberger claimed that she had been sold a defective vehicle, and filed suit alleging breach of warranty. She could not sue under Maryland’s “Lemon law,” which applies only to the sale of new vehicles and involves failed attempts to repair a new car within the first 15 months or 15,000 miles of ownership. She claimed a violation of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, and the Commercial Law Article. She also made a claim under the Magnuson Moss Act, a federal statute that allows a consumer who prevails on a state law warranty claim to get attorney’s fees from the defendant.

Originally she named an expert to testify to alleged defects in the car, but when the defendant challenged the expert she withdrew him as a witness. She tried to claim that the alleged high frequency of repairs was enough to raise an issue for a jury as to whether her car was defective, without proving a specific defect. The trial court threw the case out before trial, and she appealed. The Court of Appeals took the case, apparently because there is little Maryland law on Magnuson Moss Act claims.

The Court agreed with the trial judge, and held that on these facts the plaintiff needed an expert to testify to a defect in the vehicle in order to prevail. The Court contrasted this case with a well known case involving a thermos that exploded shortly after purchase, when there were no facts to suggest that it had been misused or altered. Here, where there was no evidence of maintenance by the first owner, an erratic history of oil changes, and an accident, the Court said it would be speculation as to whether the vehicle was truly defective.

Judge Murphy filed a concurring opinion pointing out that there may be automobile cases where the facts showed regular specified maintenance, and no explanation for problems other than a defect in a used car so that in some instances an expert may not be necessary. This case does provide guidance to those who think they have a lemon of a used car as to what they need to show to recover.