Christine Young, Consumer Watchdog
Is it possible for a company to habitually manufacture and sell shoddy, dangerous products and treat its customers as if they're fools – and still remain in business?Christine Young is the Times Leader's Consumer Watchdog. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears weekly.
Sure it is. Take General Motors, which recalled a record-breaking 30.4 million vehicles in 2014, more than any other car company in the U.S. The recall number includes vehicles with a defective ignition switch that prompted a federal investigation and the establishment of a victims' compensation fund that has 4,345 claims currently under review, including 479 deaths and 292 serious injuries such as quadriplegia, paraplegia, double amputation, permanent brain damage and pervasive burns, allegedly received in accidents in 2.6 million GM vehicles with the faulty switch. Unfortunately, the drivers and passengers in the other 28 million recalled GM vehicles don't have a victims' compensation fund, but not everyone who owns a recalled vehicle gets hurt or killed. Some just get the car fixed before anything goes wrong and that's the end of it. Those who aren't so lucky are left to their own devices to get a fair shake from GM. Among those unlucky GM customers is schoolteacher Kevin Moran of Harveys Lake, who was driving his 2013 Chevy Spark on a bright and sunny Christmas Day in 2014 with his wife. The car was loaded with presents, and there was very little traffic on the Cross Valley Expressway. It seemed like perfect day to relax and celebrate with family – until they heard a horrendous, explosive noise and the blue sky disappeared. The hood of the Spark had blown open and smashed the windshield, completely blocking their view and covering both Morans in shattered glass. Using the rear-view mirrors, Kevin maneuvered the vehicle to the side of the highway. Both he and his wife were shaken, but unhurt. Realizing they were less than a mile from Bonner Chevrolet, Kevin tied the hood down, drove at a crawl to the dealer's lot, and called a relative to pick them up so they could enjoy what was left of Christmas Day. “Most of the day was spent retelling the story and hearing from everyone just how fortunate we were,” he said. As it happened, GM had issued a recall for possible hood-latch failure in mid-November. The recall letter stated, “We will send you another notice to inform you when parts are available to repair your vehicle.” By Christmas Day, however, no such letter had arrived, and Moran's car looked as though it had been in a crash – bent and broken hood and fenders, pulverized windshield, scratched-off paint, busted hinges. The body shop at Bonner estimated the damage at $5,001.32. With the car's book value at about $9,500, it was worth the fix. “The guys at Bonner were terrific,” says Moran. “They were confident that this was a simple recall issue and that GM would pick up the tab.” The guys at Bonner were wrong. Instead, GM instructed Bonner to jack up the estimate to a higher “warranty rate,” raising the repair cost to over $7,000 and enabling GM to declare the vehicle a total loss. Instead of reimbursing Moran his vehicle's book value of $9,500, GM offered him $7,500 and a $2,000 “Owner Loyalty” coupon. That's like $2,000 in Monopoly money – no good unless you're willing to play the game, which Moran was not. With this offer, GM was forcing him to either buy a new Chevy or buy another make and lose $2,000 of what his car was worth — before the Chevy defect totaled it. Moran refused the offer and spent several weeks trying to persuade GM “Customer Care” to fix the car at the rate Bonner had quoted, but “Customer Care” stopped responding to his emails. “I ended up having my insurance repair the vehicle at Bonner for the initial estimate and paid a $250 deductible,” Moran told me. I contacted GM Spokesman Alan Adler and asked if GM would reimburse Moran the $250 deductible he'd shelled out to repair the damage caused by Chevy's defective hood latch. That afternoon Moran said he got a call from “Jennifer” at GM media relations. “She seemed to think GM did everything correctly and that the offer they made originally would satisfy most of their customers.” Really, Jennifer? Most GM customers would be satisfied with having their car destroyed by a GM manufacturing defect and then being arm-twisted into either buying another GM car or taking a $2,000 loss? Maybe so, because in 2014, despite $4.1 billion in recall expenses, GM made a tidy operating profit of $6.5 million on worldwide sales of 9.9 million vehicles – a two percent jump over the company's record-setting 2013 sales. I wrote another email to Adler, asking again if GM would reimburse Moran the $250. Seems like a simple case of right and wrong, I told him. “Mr. Moran's case is with GM customer assistance and I hope it can be resolved to his satisfaction,” Adler replied. There you have it, folks — GM “Customer Care” at its best.