If you don't change the oil in your new car, the engine will explode. I interviewed a retired factory field engineer to hear about how often that happened, and other warranty "problem" stories from the manufacturer's side.
I've known Dave (not his real name!) for more than a decade. He handled claims in a different part of the country from where I practice and somewhere along the line our paths crossed and we became friends, even though my job as a lemon law attorney was kind of the opposite of his. I asked him for some of the more memorable cases from his 30+ years of handling warranty claims for a national manufacturer. I cherry-picked a few he told me about.
A woman filed a claim on the van she owned with her husband, complaining of a noise which no one in the service department could hear. Dave was asked to inspect and report back to the manufacturer. After riding in the van and not being able to hear anything, he pulled the husband aside and asked him if to describe the noise to Dave. The husband lowered his voice, "Man, I ain't heard it either. But she's my wife and I gotta back her up on this one."
Another time, Dave was called when a customer complained about a dealer wrongfully denying warranty coverage for her van. When Dave went to look at the van, he saw that the rear bumper was caved in. He asked her, "How can I help you?"
She pointed at the bumper: "There." She had backed up in a parking lot and had run into the cement base of a light pole. "That should be warrantied." When asked why the manufacturer ought to pay for the damage, she said that the vehicle "was supposed to have five mile per hour bumpers, and I hit it at less than five miles per hour."
Another customer complained when the dealer suggested his crushed roof wasn't covered by warranty. When Dave saw the car, he could still see footprints visible on the hood of the car where someone had jumped on the hood, walked to the roof and jumped up and down on it a few times. The customer said that the damage had occurred while he was in church and his fellow churchgoers were too honest to have done something like that.
One woman came in with a car that was out of warranty but the paint was coming off in sheets. Dave decided it would make sense for the manufacturer to pay for the paint job out of goodwill. She accepted. A few weeks later, Dave stopped by the shop and was told that the job had just been started but the customer's "representative" was there to "talk to him" about the repair. Dave went to the conference room and was greeted by a hulking man who looked like a marine drill instructor – because he was one. He demanded to know why the customer had not been given a rental car and without waiting for an answer, suggested Dave was intentionally mistreating the customer.
A little bothered by the fact that the customer had not asked for a rental – which he would have given her if she had asked – and that the "representative" likewise had not asked, Dave told him. "She never asked for one." Rather than picking up on the hint and simply asking for one, the man leaned in close to Dave's face and began berating him for how poorly he treated his customers. Dave let the man vent and then left. No rental car was given. The free paint job was however, primarily because the job had already begun.
One customer complained about how the warranty claim had been denied on her vehicle's transmission. The car was out of warranty so Dave was called. The dealer told Dave that the woman was a good friend of one of the dealer's employees. The two sat down and the woman launched into a tirade about what a piece of junk the car was and how she was never going to buy another car from that manufacturer ever again. After insulting the manufacturer and its products for a few minutes she caught her breath and demanded that Dave authorize the post-warranty repair.
"Ma'am. Could you give me any solid business reason – after you telling me you would never buy our product again – for me to extend any help to you?"
She had no answer. Dave declined to give her the goodwill repair – which he probably would have given to her if he had thought it might help keep her as a customer. A few days later the husband called the dealership to find out what happened. When he was told the repair was declined he responded, "Don't tell me she opened her mouth?!"
One customer complained that several of the controls in her car were hard to operate and the center console in her vehicle could only be accessed if she unbuckled her seat belt and moved around. Dave got in the car and found that he had no problem working the controls or accessing the console when he sat in it. The customer came back to talk to him and he realized what the problem was: She was substantially, how do we put this, larger than Dave was. This customer had filed a claim with the manufacturer and Dave had to write a report of his findings. After determining that there was nothing wrong with the situation except for the way the client fit into the car, he submitted his report and noted the customer's "girth" as being the primary factor. But it was not a problem covered by warranty.
A short while later, Dave was asked to write an apology letter to the girthy customer who had taken offense for having her girthiness noted in Dave's report. Dave had been careful to not criticize the customer and asked how such a thing could have been addressed otherwise. The proposed language was, "The interior dimensions of the vehicle do not match the exterior dimensions of the customer."
One of the most common things Dave saw was engine failures where the customer had not properly changed the oil – sometimes with cars coming in with their factory-installed oil filters still in place. One customer told him it was a factory-defect and she was certain: Her last two vehicles had the same problem with their lousy engines and for some odd reason the company kept trying to blame her.
Dave told me, "I couldn't even count the number of times – hundreds of times – where people didn't change their oil." One time, another factory representative drove his executive car for 35,000 miles without changing the oil and the engine failed. And on those cars, the oil changes were provided for free. The warranty claim was denied and a dealer was paid retail to replace the engine.
Not all the cars came back in with the factory filters still in place but they often came in at 40 or 50 thousand miles with sludge-filled engines. Because it is theoretically possible for other causes to lead to a sludge problem, dealers routinely ask to see receipts or records for oil changes to prove that they were performed. It was extremely rare for the customer to have evidence of the oil changes. One customer filed a small claims action and brought to court a whiteboard he had filled out with Magic Marker claiming it was how he tracked his extensive oil changes. But he had no receipts. Dave saw engine failures based on failure to change the oil on a weekly basis. If the customer could not come up with evidence of oil changes, the claims were denied.
On the other hand, Dave also routinely overruled adverse decisions when he felt that the manufacturer was at fault, going so far as to call up his superiors and tell them to buy cars back after a lawsuit or an arbitration case had already been filed. "Guys, you don't want me testifying in court on this one. We need to buy this one back."
Dave says he considered himself a customer advocate. When he was asked about the standards he held his decisions to, he referred to his Family, Friends, Neighbor Filter. "If this vehicle was owned by a family member, a neighbor I like, or a friend of mine – somebody I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life – I want to feel comfortable with the decision based on that criteria. Not somebody that I'll never see again. And that's how I made those decisions."
There are lessons to be learned from my talk with Dave. Change your oil and save your receipts. If your vehicle breaks down out of warranty, appeal to the manufacturer for a goodwill repair. Just don't scream and yell about how much you hate the company – at least, not before you find out if the repair is going to be made.
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Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, specializing in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device. He urges you to consult with an attorney in your state should you have further legal questions.