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02/23/12 It's The Law: Statutes Provide Auto Repair Protection

Question: I took my car to the shop for repair. The bill was much higher than I expected and now the shop owner claims he will sell my car unless I pay the bill. Do I have rights?

Answer: Vehicle repair shops have a possessory lien on motor vehicles they repair, if they are properly licensed and registered under Florida Statutes. That lien can be enforced by sale of the motor vehicle.

The repair shop must give certified mail notice to the registered owner of the vehicle, customer indicated on the order for repair, and all other persons claiming an interest in or lien on the vehicle as disclosed by the records of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to perfect a lien. The notice must be given within fifteen days of the beginning date of the assessment of storage charges on the motor vehicle and must include description of the vehicle, name, address and telephone number of the lienor, and, if known, the date time, and location of any proposed or scheduled sale. No vehicle may be sold earlier than sixty days after completion of the repair work.

The notice must state that the owner of the vehicle or any person claiming an interest in the vehicle has a right to a hearing at any time prior to the scheduled sale date by filing a demand for hearing with the clerk of the circuit court. The notice must also confirm that the owner has a right to recover possession of the vehicle without court action by posting bond in an amount equal to the unpaid balance of the repair invoice plus accrued storage charges. Alternatively, the repair shop owner can file suit to enforce its lien and obtain a court order determining the amount due and validity of the lien.

A vehicle sold by the shop owner in connection with its lien, with or without court order, must be sold at public sale. Notice of the sale must be published in a local newspaper.

So far, you are probably thinking the shop owner has a lot of power. If so, you are correct. But, that power is balanced by Florida's Motor Vehicle Repair Act, which requires shop owners to provide information about repairs to their customers so that customers won't get ambushed. The Act applies to any person who, for compensation, repairs motor vehicles owned by others. Motor vehicles include automobiles, trucks, buses, RVs, motorcycles, motor scooters, or other motor powered vehicle, excluding trailers, mobile homes, watercraft and aircraft.

The Act requires the repair shop provide a written estimate when the cost of repair work will exceed $100.00, unless the written estimate is waived by the customer. The estimate must contain detailed information required by statute, including the manner in which charges are calculated, estimated cost of the repair, charge for making a repair estimate, any guarantee in connection with the repair and daily charge for storage. The shop must also provide the customer written notice of the customer's right to a written repair estimate. It is unlawful for a repair shop to require waiver of any right under the statute as a precondition to repairing a vehicle.

If the repair shop determines that actual charges will exceed the written estimate by more than $10.00 or 10%, whichever is greater, but not to exceed $50.00, the customer must be promptly notified. If the customer cancels the order, the repair shop must expeditiously reassemble the vehicle unless the customer waives reassembly or the reassembled vehicle would be unsafe. If the repair is cancelled, the shop may charge for the cost of teardown, cost of parts and labor to replace items that were destroyed by teardown, and cost to reassemble, if the customer was notified of these possible costs in the estimate prior to commencement. It is unlawful for the motor vehicle shop to charge more than the written estimate plus $10.00 or 10%, whichever is greater, unless the shop has obtained authorization from the customer. Authorization can be oral or in writing.

If the shop has not complied with the Act, it may not enforce a lien or refuse to return a customer's motor vehicle by virtue of a lien. If the repair shop hasn't complied with the Act, a consumer gets the repairs for free. A consumer can also sue for additional damage, such as loss of use. The winner in any court action under the Act also gets attorney's fees.

Although the Motor Vehicle Repair Act is intended to protect consumers, it allows waiver of those protections. Since waiver can be oral, these cases can be evidentiary nightmares. And, most of the time, the repair shop has a lot more experience and knowledge in this area than the consumer. When a consumer is in dispute with a motor vehicle repair shop, the consumer should consult with an experienced attorney at the earliest time.

By: William G. Morris, Esquire

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