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‘Court’-ing Disaster

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I just returned to the shop after what felt like the longest three hours of my life.

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I spent the afternoon in Small Claims Court, and while fascinating — the same kind of fascination that won’t allow you to look away when trains collide, planes fall out of the sky or fast-moving brush fires head straight for you — it was still incredibly frustrating and downright painful.

There is something very wrong about watching members of your community, people you know and people you have never met before, hang their dirty laundry out to dry in open court. Still worse, when you realize that you may find yourself standing among them at any minute, trying to explain the complexities of a world they could not possibly understand without years of training and experience. Add the consequences of losing and the frustration of knowing that you have no business being there in the first place, and “stressful” doesn’t even come close!

It is certainly not a place you would want to be or something you would want to do without a compelling, almost irresistible reason. Mine was simple. I had no choice, I had been summoned.

I say that, and yet we both know it’s not entirely true. I had a choice…I could have rolled over and given in, but that would have been much too easy and it certainly would not have been me. More than that, it would have been wrong because I knew we were “right.”

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Don’t misunderstand. I’m not that naïve. I know that, at best, going to court for any reason is a crap shoot, especially today when most people have no idea what it takes to inspect, test, service, maintain or repair a late-model, computer-controlled vehicle.

So, why share this with everyone? Because in an economy as difficult as today’s, with so many people struggling just to get by, the possibility of finding yourself in the same or a similar situation is not all that difficult to imagine. And, if by sharing what happened to me could help you, that’s reason enough.

So, exactly what has to go wrong for you to find yourself sitting in Small Claims Court for only the second or third time in 30 years, waiting for a chance to prove to someone you don’t know, that you didn’t do anything wrong when you know they haven’t got a chance in hell of making that determination? Just about everything! The only “good news” is the role discipline, documentation and process can play when instinct and better judgment have been compromised or, worse yet, suspended.

A first-time visitor — a guy in a late-model Mercedes — came to the shop with his Check Engine Lamp illuminated. Like most of you, we have a process when that occurs: Questions that must be asked, answers that must be recorded.

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Questions like: What brings you to the shop?

“The Check Engine Lamp is on…”

How long has it been on? “Three to six months. I’m not sure…”

How is the vehicle running? “Normally…”

After harvesting as much information as we could, we explained that in order to proceed we would have to scan the vehicle for DTCs; and, that after driving with the light on for three to six months, there was a good chance there would be more than one code, which could complicate things dramatically.

You understand that. I understand it. With a little luck, eight out of 10 people on the street might understand it, pending the right explanation. The guy in the Mercedes wasn’t going to be one of them, so I explained it all again — slowly, clearly, carefully.

He finally shook his head in acknowledgement as if he understood, signed the authorization to proceed with the inspection and testing, and even said “Thank you!”

He even seemed somehow relieved when the printer began to spit out a laundry list of codes including a “dead” oxygen sensor, a series of lean codes, and a couple of ETS and brake-related DTCs.

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FIRST THINGS FIRST
I went over the data and explained what was going on. The guy in the Mercedes inquired about the cost to continue with the additional inspection and testing necessary to isolate the problem, as well as the potential cost for repairing everything…And then very quietly mentioned that he didn’t have any money — or, at least not enough for “everything.”

I told him that was OK, and I wasn’t suggesting that he fix everything, just the worst or hard failures first. That meant replacing the “dead” O2 sensor, then driving the vehicle to see which of the other codes returned.

He seemed to like that idea and authorized replacement of the oxygen sensor. We installed the new sensor, road-tested the vehicle and finished up the paperwork. The vehicle was washed and brought up for delivery. I went over everything again: what brought the vehicle in; the subsequent inspection, testing and results; each code and what it implied; his authorization to replace the oxygen sensor; the fact that the code had not returned during the post-replacement inspection and road test; and, the possibility the MIL would, in fact, return as a result of the work that, at his request, had not been completed.

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Everything went perfectly! Or, at least that’s what I thought until he handed me his credit card and said those few, simple words that no one in our business ever wants to hear: “So, now EVERYTHING is OK: Yes?”

“No!”

“But, you said…” And, we started the whole process all over again.

He returned a day or two later with the warning lamp on again. Rather than try to explain it all a third or fourth or fifth time, we scanned the vehicle. The only code that hadn’t come back was the one for the O2 sensor.

I explained what needed to be done next if he wanted to proceed and what it would cost. He told me he had already paid to have “everything” fixed, and wasn’t going to pay again. I told him that just plain wasn’t going to happen and he left. He returned a third time with the same problem and the same attitude and left with the same result.

I received the summons a few weeks later. It seems that after leaving us, the guy in the Mercedes took the vehicle to a dealership close by and dropped 1,300 of the dollars he “didn’t have” on a lateral acceleration sensor, a fuel filter, fuel lines and the inspection, testing and installation that went with it.

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He was suing us for the amount of our invoice: almost $500, because the Check Engine Lamp came back on. I don’t know how things are where you are, but the courts here are badly impacted. As a result, the Summons was accompanied by a request to accept mediation in place of Small Claims Court as a way to mitigate case load and cost. I’ve been to court before. It’s uncomfortable, time consuming, always a gamble, and despite the fact that I haven’t had to go very often and generally win when I go, I don’t like it!

So, even though I knew there would be a cost involved, I accepted the state’s offer to mediate the claim. The guy in the Mercedes refused. A month or so later, we were sitting in the gallery waiting to be called when the plea to accept mediation was made a second time. This time, he agreed. The mediators took us out into the hallway: me to one side of the building, and him to the other, and for the next two hours they marched back and forth trying desperately to find common ground and a compromise both of us might accept.

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The process was fascinating…and, endless. However, after almost two hours of continuous dialogue, I was finished, and despite the fact that I knew I was right and had the documentation to prove it, I agreed to refund $175 just so I could get back to the shop and make it all go away.

The guy in the Mercedes refused. He wanted all of his money back. The mediators tried to make him understand that my $175 offer was more than generous and that there was a very good chance he would lose everything because the work he had done at the dealership was technically unrelated, but he still refused.

An hour later, we were standing before the judge.

She did not appear pleased the mediation had failed. Nevertheless, she allowed the plaintiff to begin and then asked me what we had done and why. She studied the information submitted by the plaintiff and all the documentation I provided. She saw the presence of additional problems identified on our repair order, and where the plaintiff had been informed and had “declined the necessary service work.” She recognized that we had replaced one part and that Mercedes had replaced a bunch of other stuff, not related to the part we had replaced. She tried diligently to help the guy in the Mercedes understand that not only was the work at the dealership unrelated to the work we had done, it was work we had already told him he was going to need.

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She found in our favor and dismissed the case on the spot. But, not before complimenting us on the way we did things: that everything had been documented and explained on the authorization, tech copies and final invoice.

She told me that she wished her shop was as conscientious. I told her we would be happy to have her as a new customer! She laughed…

She confirmed something I already knew. That when you go to court, he who has the most paperwork wins! But, “most” isn’t just about page count…it’s about the quality of the information. And, the quality of the information comes from discipline and determination. It’s not just about capturing data either. It’s about capturing the data and then transcribing what you’ve found to the appropriate document. And, it isn’t just about transcribing the data; it’s about allowing that information to recreate a service, maintenance or repair event — completely and comprehensively enough for anyone, even someone who knows nothing about what you and I do, to reconstruct what was done and determine whether or not it was justified, appropriate or legal.

When you fail to capture everything that transpired because you are too busy or you capture it and then fail to accurately document it because it’s too hard, when there is no hard evidence to support what you did or why you did it because it no longer exists, you are “court-ing disaster,” and going into court is no longer a crap-shoot, it’s a sure-thing…a sure-thing you are going to lose.

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