My Mechanic Broke my Car! What should I do now?

Stay Reasonable

Nobody wants to break down, and it’s especially irritating if you just paid for a service or repair. If you’re like me, you might get emotional, and by emotional I mean red-faced and furious. However, hopping out of the tow truck guns-a-blazing isn’t necessarily productive and may not produce the results you want. My long-time friend and co-worker Lute once gave me a very good bit of advice, which I will now share with you — decide what outcome you want first, then act in a way that will move you closer to that goal.

I can be a hot-head at times. One too many cups of coffee coupled with too many things going wrong, and I can get really mad. I’ll start lashing out. What’s my goal? I don’t know because I haven’t really considered it, but I’ll tell you what, it wasn’t me who screwed up and somebody’s going to suffer along with me! I suppose my goal might be defined as “justice”. “I’ve been wronged and the responsible party should be just as upset as I am!” This is a very bad choice of goals, and almost never leads to anything you’d want to happen actually happening.

Get all the data before doing anything

Even before deciding on a desired outcome, you’ll need the facts. Sure, the car isn’t right. That’s a fact. But there’s a lot more you’ll need to know.

  • What was the cause of the problem?
  • Does the mechanic think he caused the problem?
  • Is your mechanic going to accept responsibility?
  • What will it take to get the car working correctly?
  • What’s the shop going to offer you?
  • Do you still trust the shop enough to have them do the repairs if they offer that as a resolution.

Until you hit a stone wall, be as reasonable as you can be. Don’t make a scene the the lobby. Don’t insult people. Don’t make threats. You should behave as if you will be working with the shop, because in the end, you might be.

Don’t be confrontational, but there’s no need to be a pushover.

You don’t need to agree to everything the shop says. Let’s say your front brake pads were replaced 3 days ago and now there’s a loud banging noise from the right front every time you step on the brakes. That’s pretty suspicious, right? It’s absolutely reasonable to want a free inspection, and a shop would need to be a special kind of stupid not to check it out for free. But if they don’t, you don’t have to agree to an inspection fee. Have another shop check it out. If you’re paying for the inspection anyway, may as well make sure it’s unbiased.

Let your shop know what you think. If you think the problem your car is having now is related to the work the shop did, go ahead and say so. However, you shouldn’t say something like, “You morons better fix your screw up”. Just state facts. “I just had some work done here. Now this bad thing is happening, and it seems to me like it might be related. I’d like you to check it out.”

After the problem is diagnosed, your mechanic should call you. There are several things that can happen here.

  • We found the problem. It’s our fault. Sorry. We’d like to fix your car at no charge.
  • We found the problem. It’s not related to the work we did. We’d like to fix your car, but you’ll have to pay us.
  • We couldn’t find your problem.
  • Yup, we messed up, but we’re not paying.

What if you can’t take the car back to the original shop?

Murphy’s Law dictates that if you break down, it will be in an inconvenient place, like halfway across a bridge, or on a road trip hundreds of miles from home. If you can’t get back to the original shop, take the car to another shop, but once you have a diagnosis, be sure to call the original shop and let them know what’s going on. It’s often easiest to let the two shops communicate directly.

The shop admits fault

If your shop owns up to the problem, that’s great. I mean, it’s not great; they screwed up, but at lease they’re honest incompetents. I’m just kidding here. EVERY shop has screwed up. If a shop says they don’t have “comebacks” they’re almost certainly lying, and they probably screw up more than average. One of the differences between a good shop and a bad shop is how they handle it when they’ve done something wrong. In general, if a shop offers to fix an issue they caused, it’s usually best to let them.

Dealing with “what ifs?”

Sometimes there’s some uncertainty about the extent of the damage. We once installed the wrong oil filter on a car. About 2 weeks later the gasket blew out because it was barely making contact on the block. The car sprayed oil everywhere and the oil light came on while the customer was pulling to the side of the road. We put the correct oil filter on, replaced the oil, cleaned the mess, and the car seemed to be fine, but the customer was worried there might be damage that hadn’t shown up yet. That’s a reasonable concern. We agreed that if the engine developed any problems in the next 100,000 miles, we’d replace it and wrote a contract to document it. It seemed fair to us and fair to him.

Now, this type of agreement isn’t required. A shop can say, “Well, there’s no damage evident. We fixed what we broke and cleaned the mess. That’s all we’re going to do.” You could try small claims court, but without any way to prove damage, winning seems unlikely. This is why being calm and reasonable is a good idea. Good mechanics feel really guilty when they screw up, especially when they screw up a nice person’s car. I’d recommend being nice and working on the mechanic’s guilt and sense of fairness.

Incidental and Consequential

Now, fixing the car may not be the only issue. Sometimes there’s a towing bill, or wasted tickets because you couldn’t make the game, or whatever. Most shops will specifically exclude “incidental and consequential” damages in their warranty, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask, and it doesn’t mean they won’t agree to cover your costs, or work something else out. We’ve given away or discounted future work, handed out checks, and come up with other arraignments to reconcile with customers. If you have a good shop, they’ll likely feel pretty bad about screwing up and want to make it right. However, if you came in hot and alienated the staff while dropping the car off, it’s pretty likely they won’t work very hard to make you happy.

What if the shop says it’s not their fault?

What if they say it’s not their fault? Well, it might not be. Listen to what they say and then take a step back and consider whether you think it’s possible. Coincidences do happen. If all the transmission fluid suddenly leaks out of your two year old car with 30,000 miles right after a transmission service, you’ll probably want to get a second opinion if they claim it had nothing to do with them. However, if the same thing happens on a 20 year car with 248,000 miles, well, you never know. It’s a lot more plausible.

Judging without technical knowledge

If you’re reading this, you’re likely not an automotive expert. You’re not really equipped to make judgements based technical knowledge. Instead, you’ll need to use your “gut”. People are good at reading each other. Are we perfect lie detectors? Far from it, but we all have some abilities here. In person discussions will help with both reading your mechanic and building empathy.

For instance, I’m not qualified to judge my dentist; I don’t know my dentin from my cementum. However, there are clues that she’s good. When she talks about her presentation at the periodontal conference, her words, tone, and body language all make me think that she’s very serious about her profession and is likely qualified. When she takes the time to explain the pros and cons of various procedures, it leads me to believe that she has my best interests at heart and wants to help me choose what’s best for me.

Get a second (professional) opinion

If you don’t believe your mechanic is telling the truth, or maybe he seems like he’s not competent, get a second opinion. There is no “thin greasy line”. The only courtesy one shop is likely to do another is toning down their assessment of the other shop’s work. Instead of saying, “Only an idiot could have put this gasket on backwards!”, they’ll do the other shop the professional courtesy of saying, “It looks like they put this gasket in backwards”. If it’s bad work, nearly all shops will call it out.

How to sue a repair shop

As I mentioned before, leading with threats is a bad idea. Telling somebody “I’m going to sue you!” will probably cause communication to break down. However, if you can’t get satisfaction, a lawsuit may end up being your only option. If this is the case, it may make the most sense to reveal your intentions with a demand letter. A demand letter will likely hold more weight and sway than a verbal statement of your intent.

Before starting the process, make sure you can prove that problem was caused by the shop that worked on your car. That means you’ll need an expert to say the problem was caused by the shop. Just because the car broke after a repair or service won’t be sufficient evidence to win your case. “Post hoc ergo propter hoc”, or “after this therefore because of this” is a logical fallacy, and this type of “evidence” is pretty unlikely to convince a judge that you’re in the right.

If you think you have a chance of winning, get a book from Nolo Press. It’s a legal self-help bookstore a few blocks from us, but they have e-books and shipping available. You’ll be able to find a book to guide you through your legal options and avoid mistakes that could cause you to lose even if you have a good case. There are a lot of rules that must be followed and you’ll need guidance.