Dennis BeaverApril 15, 2022 • By Dennis Beaver 

Please join me for a walk down memory lane, to 1965 and the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, the frightening book by lawyer and consumer advocate Ralph Nader about just how little auto manufacturers cared about safety. Nader’s first sentence has been described as an indictment of the automobile industry.

“For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.”

Shortly after Unsafe at Any Speed was published, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, requiring the adoption of new and upgraded vehicle safety standards, and creating an agency to enforce them and supervise safety recalls.

Suddenly, the auto industry came under federal oversight.

Despite facing stiff opposition, much stronger safety requirements brought about technologies we take for granted, such as seatbelts, anti-lock brakes, air bags, blind-spot warning, electronic stability control, rearview cameras and automatic braking to name a few.

So, we can thank that one brazen Harvard attorney who demanded lifesaving changes in the way the automotive industry built cars and which, in 1975, led to enactment of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, offering protection to consumers who purchased defective vehicles.

It quickly became known as the lemon law, requiring manufacturers – not dealers – to buy back vehicles that can’t be repaired after either a “reasonable number” or a “specific number” of attempts, depending upon how the state you reside in defines a “lemon.”

What qualifies? “Anything that adversely affects the car’s value, use or safety,” is a good general definition. “Lesser defects, such as a bent radio antenna or loose radio knob” would not qualify, points out Los Angeles-based lemon law attorney Bob Brennan.

But if Not a Lemon, What Can I Do?

Today’s story is about one such defect that has been a real annoyance to not only Neil and Susan Williams of Fresno, but thousands of folks who own a certain brand of compact SUV. The actual brand isn’t as important as the issues and what a customer may be forced to do.

Neil wrote, “We purchased our SUV new on 10/24/2013. While we love the car, it has been plagued with what is obviously a poorly-designed driver and passenger side seat plastic trim – also called cladding – that comes loose, requires re-attachment or replacement, and this has happened 14 times!”

That’s right, 14 times the same plastic seat trim has come loose.

On an owner’s internet site, after describing identical issues with the trim falling apart, “bossfan” writes on Jan. 6, 2016, “A new seat trim piece was ordered for me under warranty. The new trim piece was installed but after a few times of someone sitting in the passenger seat, the clipped end has come apart again. I keep having to push it back together but I think it is only a matter of time before it breaks off like the first time.

“Seems like a poor design where instead of a solid seat trim piece it is this two piece clipped-in design. It is cosmetic and not a big deal since you can’t really see it unless you bend over to look at it. But it is annoying.”

End of Warranty – Goodwill Gesture

When Neil’s warranty expired, at first, the manufacturer authorized repairs on their dime as a goodwill gesture. “But no more, and including labor, it will now cost over $400 each time to replace the broken trim pieces – every year! So, having known about this obvious defect for years, why didn’t they redesign it?” he wonders.

“Many other owners of our product are asking the same question,” a parts manager admitted during a recent phone call. “If it were up to me, I would replace these trim pieces as long as the customer owned the vehicle. It just isn’t fair to make them constantly pay to replace these items,” said another.

Several owners suggested design methods of resolving the broken trim problem that made sense – and would have been fairly simple. So, why the manufacturer refuses is difficult to understand.

Advice from a Lemon Law Attorney

Southern California-based attorney Bob Brennan is recognized as one of the nation’s leading lemon law attorneys. Upon being briefed with the details of this case, his recommendation for Neil and others is small claims court.

“Your readers can easily establish the fact of these parts being defective given that they break almost every year and the auto maker has not redesigned them. It is not reasonable to expect the customer pay for new trim pieces yearly, and I’ll bet that a small claims court judge will agree.

“Their Agent for Service of Process is listed on each state’s Secretary of State website. With that information, file the suit in your local court and have service made on the agent.”

It’s good advice. If enough customers file these suits, someone, somewhere in the corporate structure will get the message.

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