DennisBeaverAugust 13, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver

Our story today will be of interest to anyone who owns a car or RV, and we begin with a question: “What is the one thing an automotive repair shop must provide before any repair work is done? If it is not provided and they work on your car, then what?”

In March of this year, Hanford reader “Susie” did not know the answers to those questions, and she is not alone. This is her story.

When her 2004 Mercury Mountaineer began making strange engine noises, she took it to “Mechanic 1″ who explained that it required new timing belts and other work. She was given a written estimate — about $4,000— which she discussed with a friend who referred her to his friend, “Mechanic 2.”

Had she taken just a minute to Google this repair shop, there’s a good chance that today’s story would not have been written, as a Yelp review from “Miriam” stated:

“This guy ripped me off not only once, but twice. Never fixed my engine light and probably never even fixed anything in my car. He never gave me a print out, or an estimate before he began work on my car. Never go here, it’s a waste of time and money.”

“Mechanic 2 only wanted $2,300 to repair the motor, and promised it would be ready in a week. I never received a written estimate. Three weeks later I got my car back and it had a knocking sound that was not there before. Going back and forth to his shop and wanting him to stand behind his work, he came up with different excuses, one of which was the transmission. But I took it to a transmission shop and they said that it’s the engine!”

Susie next took the car to, who else, Mechanic 1 who “looked at it and the bill I was given, finding things which had not been done but for which I was charged, and other possible causes of the knocking sound. But I can’t afford to have him pull the engine apart or do repairs,” her fax to You and the Law stated.

“Yesterday I phoned Mechanic 2 and told him that I’m going to court, and suddenly now he wants to make everything right when the entire month of April he never wanted to fix the engine. Can you please help me?”

In California and most states, an automotive repair shop is required by law to provide a written estimate covering labor and parts before work begins on a vehicle. “No work shall be done and no charges shall accrue before the authorization to proceed is obtained from the customer,” Business and Professions Code section 9884.9(a) states.

“Authorization consists of the customer’s signature on the work order taken before the work begins, and is valid without the customer’s signature only when oral or electronic authorization is documented in accordance with State regulations.”

So, what happens, as Susie experienced, when the shop does work on your car, expects to be paid, but fails to provide the signed written estimate beforehand?

“They can’t legally do a thing to your car without that written estimate,” a Bureau of Automotive Repair investigator told You and the Law. “They could completely rebuild your entire car, yet without complying with the law, cannot charge you a cent.”

But Susie paid Mechanic 2’s bill. So now what?

We set up a three-way conference call with Susie and Mechanic 2, announced that it was being recorded, and over the next several minutes it became evident this guy was just asking to have his license suspended or revoked, first for the failure to provide a written estimate, and second, for charging her for parts and labor not provided.

He had no objection to being recorded, and in fact wanted it known that, yes, there was no written estimate, and, no, he was not going to refund her $2,300.

“You knew the law requires a signed written estimate, right? We asked.

“Yup, sure do.” he replied.

“Then why did you not have her sign one?”

“Because she was brought in by a good customer, that’s why!” he replied. It should be noted that there is no such thing as “a-good-customer” justification for failing to comply with the law.

“It is in your best interest to give her a refund,” we urged. “The Bureau of Automotive Repair considers doing the right thing in a positive light. If she takes you to Small Claims Court, you have no defense at all.”

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.