Directions: Caution — Dangerous Precedent Ahead

Directions: Caution — Dangerous Precedent Ahead

A case had been shaping up in New York last month that could have set a dangerous precedent for the vehicle repair industry. In a scary move, prosecutors in Wampsville, NY, last year filed homicide charges against a muffler shop manager who inspected a car just days before it hit and killed an 8-year-old girl.

However, following six days of evidence presented by prosecutors, Madison County Judge Biagio DiStefano said there wasn’t enough evidence to support the criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment charges against Morries Briggs in the death of Mallory Eddy.

For those who haven’t been following the case, the story begins nearly a year ago on May 21, when David Bennett, who was 17 at the time, was driving down a hill when he approached a stopped school bus. Bennett, who later told police that his brakes failed, swerved to the right of the bus and hit little Mallory Eddy as she stepped off the bus.

Just nine days prior to the accident, Briggs, a 38-year-old manager of a Monro Muffler, had inspected Bennett’s 1989 Ford Tempo at his shop. The prosecution in the case alleged that Briggs’ inspection was faulty.

Does reading this send a chill down your spine? It should, as over-zealous prosecutors and irresponsible parties often look to shift blame to others when it comes to the issue of safety. We as service repair professionals must be vigilant of such powder kegs that could go off at anytime and negatively impact our already poorly stereotyped industry.

Fortunately, through court testimony, the facts in this case were eventually played out. But from the beginning, it wasn’t that clear cut.

According to the local police, at the time of the accident, the car’s rear brake hydraulic circuit had failed. However, where the brake line failed, was a portion that runs above the gas tank. It was argued that even under the mandated State of New York Inspection Procedures, there is no way the shop manager could have seen if the line was corroded or damaged.

Testimony in the case also revealed that Briggs did advise the used car dealer (R.J. Meehan) who sold the vehicle to another man (Michael Joslyn), who then sold the car to Bennett’s father, that the pads were low at the time of the state inspection, but not bad enough to fail the car. Joslyn testified that he replaced the left front pads, but couldn’t install new right front pads due to the fact that he could not remove the caliper.

Testimony in the case also came from an inspector with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, who said that state regulations specify that the only way brake pads can fail an inspection is if they are "metal-to-metal." Briggs testified that he was obligated to "pass" the vehicle’s inspection because while the pads were low, they were not metal-to-metal.

Police investigators testified that when they examined the car following the accident, the brakes and brake lines were extremely rusty and corroded. They also said that following skid tests, spots of brake fluid were found on the driveway where the test was conducted and a hole was found in one of the brake lines.

Contradictory testimony in court revealed that no brake fluid was seen at the accident, on the flatbed truck that removed the car from the accident, or on the ground where the car was later stored. And, of course, it’s not unreasonable to see rust and corrosion on a vehicle that’s 15 years old.

But the most damaging testimony I read for the prosecutors’ case was when a witness said Bennett passed her car at an estimated 80 mph just prior to the accident!

The witness said Bennett, traveling with two teenage passengers, passed her at a high rate of speed from the RIGHT shoulder of the road and then entered the roadway in front of her.

(Bennett’s trial for criminally negligent homicide in this case will still take place later this year.)

The editors here would have to say that one of the biggest lessons learned here is how shops handle a customer that refuses work that is critical to the safety of the vehicle. We’re even seeing some shops that are now requiring that unsafe vehicles be towed off their lots. And some shops are requiring customers to sign their estimates so that they are aware of the possible safety issues.

Our advice for now is to adopt write-up standards and language like those developed by the Motorist Assurance Program (www.motorist.org). It is a great resource for legal customer communications and documentation.

Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future one of television’s fictional judicial drama programs uses the key elements from this case in their storyline. Such a program would grab my attention, and probably many other motorists.

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