New England Automotive Report January 2022

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[LEGAL] PERSPECTIVE by James A. Castleman, Esq.

Who Has the Right to Authorize Repairs? I received an urgent call from a collision repair shop owner a few weeks ago. A young woman sitting in his waiting room had been angrily screaming at him, telling him that he had no right to repair her car. Despite the fact that the vehicle was half repaired and taken apart, with a fender sitting on the floor waiting to be painted, the woman was demanding that the shop put the car back together so she could take it somewhere else – even though the shop had a signed repair order. The problem was that the woman owned the car, but she was not the person who had brought the vehicle into the shop and signed the repair order. Rather, her “no good brother” brought the car to the shop and signed the authorization to repair without checking with her first. The vehicle owner’s anger stemmed from her belief that the shop owner had convinced her brother to authorize unnecessary, expensive repairs. She further argued that her brother had no right to authorize the repairs since he did not own the vehicle. The shop owner asked if the woman could really demand that the car be put together and released to her. Moreover, did he have the right to get paid at least for the repairs that had been made and the parts that had been purchased? After all, he did have a signed repair order in his hand. Unfortunately, the answer was unclear. I suggested that the shop owner try to negotiate something with the woman, get her to agree to at least some portion of the cost of the repairs that he had made and do what she wanted – i.e. put the car together and let her take it out of there. That is what he did. And by being a calm and skilled negotiator, he convinced the woman to agree to pay for a greater amount of the repairs than I might have guessed. The shop did not make much money on the repairs, but at least, it did not lose money, and the shop owner avoided having to further deal with a customer who would never have been happy with his shop. This was not the first time that I had run into this problem. In fact, this was the second shop owner that had called me with the same issue within a few weeks – except that the other shop owner had been yelled at by a woman complaining about her “no good boyfriend” instead of her brother. And this is an issue that I have run into, in one form or another, many times over the years. Who can authorize repairs? Is the vehicle owner the only person who can authorize repairs? No. But if they are not the one providing the authorization, then a repair shop should be wary and should make sure that the person authorizing repairs has the right to do so. 40 January 2022

New England Automotive Report

Under the Massachusetts Attorney General’s consumer protection regulations, if a customer authorizes repairs in the manner set out in the regulation (and if other requirements of the regulation are met), the shop can charge the customer for the authorized repairs. But who is the “customer”? Arguably, the “no good brother” and “no good boyfriend” who brought someone else’s car in for repairs are the shops’ customers. After all, they did bring in damaged cars and did sign repair orders. They may well be personally liable for the cost of the repairs that they authorized and that were made. After all, the shops made repairs in good faith, relying on what they had been told – repairs for which the brother and boyfriend signed contracts. Unfortunately for the repair shops in both of these cases, it is also quite possible that the car owners themselves are not liable for the cost of repairs, and it is likely that the shops would not have an enforceable garage keeper’s lien against the vehicles that they repaired. Nor would the shop have the right to demand that an insurer covering the repairs pay the shop directly for those repairs, even if the brother or boyfriend signed a “direction to pay” form. No shop owner wants to be in a position where they are chasing an individual to try to get paid – particularly an individual who does not own the car and who may be unable to come up with the funds needed to pay. In order for the vehicle owner to be liable for the cost of repairs, or for a garage keeper’s lien against a car to be valid (as set out in the applicable statute), a damaged vehicle needs to be brought to a shop either by the owner “or with the consent of ” the owner. By the same token, generally under Massachusetts law, for the vehicle owner to be the “customer” who is liable under the repair contract, the vehicle owner must authorize the repairs – either personally or through a proxy who has their consent to do so. How does a repair shop know whether someone has the owner’s consent to authorize repairs? It is not always easy for a shop to know whether the person they are dealing with is the owner of a vehicle, or if the person they are dealing with has the consent of the vehicle owner to authorize repairs. A good place to start, however, is simply to check the vehicle’s registration, a document that all drivers are required to have with them or in an easily accessible location. Who is named as the registered owner, and is that the person with whom you are dealing? If the person that you are dealing with is not the person named on the registration, the next thing to do is to ask the continued on pg. 42