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Florida's Motor Vehicle Repair Act was first adopted in 1980 as the legislature's effort to protect Floridians from surprise auto repair bills. The Act applies to all motor vehicle repair shops with the exception of those carrying out governmental function, those solely repairing for-hire vehicles, those solely repairing farm vehicles and a few other limited exceptions. It includes the repair facilities utilized by Floridians to repair and maintain their personal vehicles. The Act does not include repair of trailers, mobile homes, travel trailers, watercraft, aircraft or special mobile equipment.

The Act requires motor vehicle repair shops post a sign advising customers of their right to a written repair estimate prior to the performance of repair. If that was all it did, the Act would be helpful but would not have much bite. The legislature knew that, so the Act provides consumers with other specific protections.

Motor vehicle repair shops have to provide a written repair estimate if the cost of the repair will exceed $100. The estimate must identify the customer, vehicle, describe the problem or request for repair and explain the manner by which charges were calculated. The estimate must also indicate terms of any guarantee and a statement allowing the customer to indicate whether replaced parts should be saved for inspection for return.

The right to a written estimate can be waived by the customer. Many repair shops include a waiver in the papers signed by a customer dropping off a vehicle for service. The Act requires notice of right to written estimate and waiver to be in capital letters, and 12-point type in an effort to make sure the customer reads it. The repair shop cannot require waiver.

The written estimate is not limited to the actual repair. The estimate must include the cost of all diagnostic work if there will be a charge for that work.

The Act recognizes estimates are merely that. Once the mechanic starts work, actual scope of needed repair may exceed the estimate. When that happens, the customer must promptly notified of any additional repair work and estimated cost. That notice can be by telephone and the customer can agree to the additional repair orally. Sadly, oral notification and acceptance by a customer is the excuse often used by unscrupulous repair shops to bill more than the initial estimate. The Act also requires a written invoice be given the customer describing parts labor and identifying any part is being used, rebuild or reconditioned.

The Act provides a partial exception when a vehicle is left at the shop when the shop is not open. There is an implied partial waiver of the written estimate, but upon completion of diagnostic work, the shop must notify the customer of the estimated cost of repair.

What can any consumer do when the repair shop fails to comply with the Act? The Act provides right to sue for damages, court costs and attorney's fees. Attorney's fees are not generally available in lawsuits unless provided by contract or statute, but this statute provides attorney's fees if the consumer has been damaged. The measure of damages in most cases is cost of the repair. That means, if the shop fails to give a written estimate, repairs are free to the consumer.

In some cases, damages can be more. Motor vehicle repair shops have a lien on vehicles and right to sell a vehicle if their bill is not paid. If the repair shop fails to give a written estimate then proceeds to enforce its claim to payment through lien and sale of the vehicle, the consumer might have significantly more damages than simple refund of any money paid for repair. The biggest problem for consumers in these cases is the repair shop claims the consumer orally approved additional work.

A good example of the problem faced by consumers when the shop uses oral authorization as defense is the case of Siam Motors, Inc. v. Spivey. In that case, Siam Motors filed suit for repair costs after Spivey stopped payment on checks to the shop. Spivey counter sued the shop claiming no written estimate was given prior to repairs. Siam Motors argued that Spivey waived any written estimate because he delivered the car to the shop, when the shop was closed and that shop called Spivey and obtained oral authorization to proceed with repairs after initial diagnosis. Possibly because Spivey's credibility was harmed by the fact that he got his car and stopped payment on his checks, the repair shop won.

Consumers are not limited to pursuit of damages under the Act. A consumer may have a claim for fraud, which can open the door to punitive damages if the repair shop has been guilty of action which is particularly egregious. Punitive damages are extra damages awarded to punish and or serve as an example when someone is particularly bad. Drawback to a fraud claim is those cases do not generally allow the award of attorney's fees in addition to any damages suffered by the consumer.

Consumers might also pursue a claim under Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA). That statute provides a cause of action for consumers defrauded by deceptive and unfair trade practices, which includes any unfair or deceptive act or practice of a motor vehicle repair shop. FDUTPA allows a consumer to recover actual damages plus attorney's fees and costs. But, since Florida's Motor Vehicle Repair Act provides almost identical opportunity for recovery from a repair shop, consumers rarely pursue action under FDUTPA in connection with motor vehicle repairs.

Florida's Motor Vehicle Repair Act is a powerful weapon for consumers, but it is not foolproof. Consumers must still be vigilant when dealing with motor vehicle repair shops. If a repair shop fails to comply with the statute, the door is opened to free repair plus attorney's fees.

William G. Morris is the principal of William G. Morris, P.A. William G. Morris and his firm have represented clients in Collier County for over 30 years. His practice includes litigation and divorce, business law, estate planning, associations and real estate. The information in this column is general in nature and not intended as legal advice.