Reader Brandon took his recently purchased 1996 BMW M3 to a car stereo installation company to have a stereo, speaker set, and GPS system installed. When he got his car back, he noticed that the climate control system was no longer functioning the way it used to. Hot air was leaking from his air ducts when he selected cold air. After a few unsuccessful attempts to get the car stereo installation shop to repair the damage they caused, Brandon took the car to some BMW experts and found out that the botched installation had caused over $10,000 in damage to his car. Brandon then tried to get the car stereo shop’s insurance company to pay for the repairs, but they denied his claim on the basis that procedures used for the installation were typical. Brandon says he then took the car stereo shop to small claims court. but the judge ruled against him because the car stereo shop employees claimed that he entered into a oral contract to release them from liability in exchange for a partial refund. Brandon claims he never entered into such a contract. Read his story inside.
Here’s Brandon’s story:
I took my car to The Car Stereo Company in Los Altos, CA back in November of 2007 to get a stereo, speaker set, and GPS system installed. I met with a salesman who was very nice at the time, and convinced me that their shop would be able to do a good job installing these components. They informed me that they did this same type of installation before on another BMW and that they knew what they were doing. I scheduled an appointment early the following week to bring my car in for installation.
After I got my car back from The Car Stereo Company, I noticed that my climate control system inside my car wasn’t acting the same way it did before the installation. There was hot air coming out of the air ducts when I selected cold air. So, I took the car back to the store and asked them to take a look at it. At first, they were very agreeable to at least try to fix the problem, but they weren’t able to do so. I took my car back to them subsequent times to allow them the opportunity to fix the problem, but they just didn’t have the skill and wouldn’t admit it. At this point, the salesman was getting annoyed with my frequent visits. They had spent a few hours trying to repair my car unsuccessfully, and thought that they were now doing me favors by accommodating my requests to fix what they broke. In fact, a couple times when I brought the car to them to mend a problem that they caused, I got the car back with another item broken. For example, one time they tried to fix the hot air problem in the car and when I got the car back, the LCD on the climate control module was broken. When I brought this to the installer’s attention, he had the audacity to accuse me of damaging it myself. By this time, I realized that there was something seriously wrong with the work that this stereo shop performed, so I met with some professionals at Stevens Creek BMW in Santa Clara, CA. They work with an experienced, BMW-specialized aftermarket stereo installer and upon first meeting with him, he was able to determine the source of the problem with my climate control and also pointed out several other parts in my car that they unnecessarily damaged. The main problem was that the heater core housing had a huge hole cut in it. The heater core housing holds the heater core, which generates the heat for the climate control system. It regulates how much heat gets sent into the car. With such a large hole cut in it, the climate control system couldn’t operate normally. That explained why the air vents were incorrectly supplying hot air.
As a result of these findings, I decided that I did not want to have anything to do with The Car Stereo Company anymore. They were also becoming very difficult to deal with, and wouldn’t own up to the damages that they caused. I went to their store and asked for a refund so that I could take that money to go get the car put back to stock condition. They decided that they would give me a refund, charge a 20% restocking fee, but would not refund the labor fees. In addition, they added writing on the back of the refund check that would release them of liability of the damages if I endorsed it. So, I decided not to cash the check. After getting legal advice, I decided to go through my credit card company instead to get a refund for the merchandise.
So with this small amount of money in my hand, I thought I could go get my car fixed at Stevens Creek BMW in Santa Clara, CA. Yes, it was a little naive considering nothing is cheap to fix on cars, but the damages didn’t look that bad to me. Apparently the job is very labor intensive. The heater core housing is located pretty much in the center of the car, and it takes several hours to remove the necessary parts to get to it. There were also other things that BMW pointed out that were damaged. They came up with the attached initial estimate of $3,600 in labor and $8,053.91 in parts. I was dumbfounded and heartbroken that my poor car was in such a sad state. I couldn’t pay for over $11,000 in repairs on my own, nor did I feel like I should have to since the stereo shop caused all the damage! I’m sure you might be a little skeptical about how necessary this repair work was, and you’re wondering why it’s so expensive, but I got another estimate from an independent German car mechanic confirming the same findings. Not only that, the exact same thing happened to a Honda Civic owner when he took his car to a Circuit City and it cost just about the same amount to fix the car, as detailed in this article also posted on Consumerist.
So, after talking with a lawyer, he suggested to me that the best way to get the money for the repairs would be to sue the company in small claims court. I followed all of the rules and suggested steps for this process. I began with a demand letter. This was a good way to keep the matter out of court and let them know that I felt that they owed me the money without making things too complicated. After receiving the letter, The Car Stereo Company immediately turned the issue over to their insurance company. I struggled back and forth with their insurance company, and they ultimately refused to cover the claim. They claimed that I was aware that modifications would have to be made to my car to accommodate the stereo, and the procedures used for installation were typical. However, I was not made aware that anything would be damaged in my car, nor that the functionality of the car would be impeded as a result of this installation. Also, as BMW later informed me, the procedures they used to install this stereo are not advisable. And as I already mentioned, another independent German car mechanic confirmed BMW’s findings. I also got a letter from BMW, the German car mechanic, and the BMW-specialized aftermarket stereo installer agreeing that my demand was justified (see attached documents). At this point, I felt my only real option was to take The Car Stereo Company to court. They took no action after their insurance company denied the claim. I wrote up the court papers and had them served and waited for my court date.
The court result, as I’m sure you can guess since you’re now reading this article, didn’t come out in my favor. The judge said he was about to award me money for damages, but later changed his mind. I lost because (as the judge put it) I entered into an oral contract with The Car Stereo Company, and most oral contracts are binding in California. The contract that the judge said we agreed to was that I would pay for the damages on my own if The Car Stereo Company issued me a refund. I had no idea at the time I asked for a refund that I was entering into any sort of contract.
I explained to the judge that I also didn’t know what the cost of the repairs would be at the time of this conversation and that if I knew how expensive they were, I would never have even considered footing the bill for the damages. However, as many people know the law doesn’t always follow common logic, so that didn’t matter. What also didn’t help my case was that two of their witnesses (an installer and a salesman) said that I said to them, “I release you of liability of the damages to my car.” This crushed my case, and I told the judge that I absolutely did not ever say that to them. Honestly, who speaks in those terms anyway? The judge said he believed them and said their argument was more credible since there were two of them supporting their side of the story and I was the only one supporting my side. I explained that the witnesses were biased because they worked for the owner of the stereo shop. The judge’s response was, “They don’t look biased to me.” I couldn’t believe it. So, needless to say I was again dumbfounded by yet another ridiculous event in this whole debacle. That’s where the story leaves off. I couldn’t believe they got away with it.
Brandon also included the final repair bill and a letter from a car stereo installation expert describing the damages to his car.