It's About the Law

Rebecca Rivera went to John Elway AutoNation looking for a fair deal, but she's still spinning her wheels.

Rebecca Rivera is a diminutive blue-eyed lady with fine features, teased blond hair and a sweet, almost naive voice that makes her sound younger than she is. So the guys at John Elway Ford West must have been salivating when Rivera called on April 2 to ask about the pickup truck that was advertised in the paper for $5,999. They must have thought they had a real sucker on the line. "Oh, yeah, they saw me coming," Rivera says. "They saw me coming for sure."

Rivera and her husband, Zeke, went down to the dealership at the corner of 38th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard the next day to test-drive the red and silver 1990 Ford F-150. "I had been looking for a truck for my husband to do 'honey-do' stuff," Rebecca says. "We had looked and looked, but the prices were really expensive. This one was perfect. The paint was a little bit rough, but it was perfect for what we needed."

The Riveras wrote a check for $6,648.50, which included taxes and handling, and signed their names to the usual stack of paperwork, such as an odometer statement that gave the miles for their new truck as 97,175. They also received a 3,300-mile/99-day John Elway AutoNation USA warranty that comes with every used car with fewer than 100,000 miles on it.

A few weeks later, on April 26, Zeke Rivera felt the transmission slipping and asked his wife to take the truck back to the dealership--since it was still under warranty--so they could check it out. The service mechanic said, yes, the transmission was slipping, but he pointed out that the truck couldn't possibly be under warranty, since it had more than 100,000 miles on it--a revelation that took the Riveras by surprise.

As it turned out, someone at the dealership--either intentionally or mistakenly--recorded the mileage on all of Rivera's paperwork, including the odometer disclosure statement, the warranty, the purchase agreement and the bill of sale, as 97,175 when it was really 109,717.

The odometer itself actually read 9,717.5, because it had rolled over once the mileage passed 100,000. "It looked like it said 97,000, but it was actually 9,700," Rebecca Rivera says. "If you look at the paperwork, you can see they screwed me from the beginning."

A salesman acknowledged the error and told the Riveras they could trade in the pickup and pay the difference on another car or trade it in for a car of equal value--"a filthy old clunker with 124,000 miles and a cracked window," Rivera says. When the Riveras refused, asking only that their warranty be honored, the salesman's tone got nasty.

"They got really smart with me," she says. "He said, 'That's too bad,' and when we asked for our money back, he said, 'No, you either find a trade or you are stuck with the truck.' Then he walked out on me."

On May 14, Rivera got a letter from the law office of Michael G. McKinnon, who represents the John Elway AutoNation dealerships.

"As my client has previously indicated to you, there was an error in the Odometer Disclosure Statement you signed," the letter read. "As a result...a new [statement] reflecting 109,000 miles must be signed. Unfortunately, there is no warranty provided by my client on vehicles with over 100,000 miles. Thus, if you wish to keep the vehicle, you must sign a new Odometer Disclosure Statement.

"Conversely, my client is willing to rescind the contract and refund all amounts paid by you for the vehicle. If this is an avenue you wish to pursue, please contact me immediately.

"Should you fail to contact me...my client will have to take the necessary steps to rectify the...error."

John Elway Ford West was now offering to give Rivera her money back, but the attorney's letter made her too angry to accept those terms. "This was just too far out of line," Rivera says. "I'm too old to be intimidated, I guess." That was when Rivera called a dealer investigator at the state Motor Vehicle Division.

It took less than three weeks for investigator Richard Predovich to determine that John Elway Ford West had broken three state laws: It had failed to disclose the correct odometer reading, failed to honor the warranty and failed to deliver the title within thirty days. (Rivera has still not received her title, nearly two and a half months later.)

But like most of the dealers who are investigated by the state, John Elway Ford West will not face any punishment whatsoever.

Out of 2,418 complaints last year, only 39 cases (which sometimes include more than one complaint) were forwarded to the state's dealer board, an appointed body of auto-industry executives who are supposed to act as judges in cases of dealer or dealership wrongdoing.

In October 1997, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies released a review of the dealer board, questioning whether it operated in the interests of the public ("Take It for a Ride," February 5, 1998). The review called the hearing process time-consuming, inconsistent and inefficient and said that it focused on the dealer rather than the consumer.

But James F. Clark, who is the head of the state auto-licensing division and executive secretary of the nine-member board, defends both entities. Clark says his staff tries to resolve each case by talking to the dealership that has violated the law and convincing its representatives to fix the problem rather than refer everything to the dealer board.

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