What's my recourse for a car repair job that went south?
April 19, 2012 2:39 PM   Subscribe

What's my recourse, if any, for a car repair job that went south?

I took my Buick that's 10+ years old to a local mechanic that I've used before. I'd recently had new tires put on by a local tire shop, then took it to the mechanic to replace the tie rods. The mechanic replaced the front inner and outer tie rods and one hub bearing, and did an alignment. They sent it home on Friday evening, and I don't think I noticed any problems then.

However, on Saturday, the car had problems with steering. I told myself that maybe this would straighten out on its own, but there were problems for the next few days, so I brought it back in later that week. Basically the car would lose its power steering assist during turns. We went on a test drive but the car steered seemingly normally. I tried to go home and the steering went out while I was pulling into my driveway, so I went right back and had him test drive the car himself. He admitted that the steering was troubled, did a power steering fluid flush that didn't fix the problem, and then wanted to charge me to replace the pump, rack, and pinion. He said he'd checked his work and the steering issues weren't his fault. I took my car home and parked it for a month and after some research took it to a reputable repair shop which is currently putting in a new rack, to the tune of over a grand.

Here's why my sketch sense is tingling:

-The odometer was up 40 miles from when I brought it in, so clearly there was a lot of test driving going on. Wouldn't they have noticed a problem? Isn't it dangerous to send someone on their way with wack power steering?

-They have bad Yelp reviews that I checked after the fact. There aren't that many reviews to begin with, but several Yelpers complained that their car left the garage with damage they didn't go in with. They're also not registered at the BBB. However, they are an AAA-certified repair shop.

-The current repair shop can't say for sure if the previous mechanic caused the rack damage, although they kept asking me what he said when I took the car back to him. They are saying that a pump replacement isn't necessary at this time, and that the previous mechanic used two different brands of tie rods (!), but that this also wouldn't be sufficient to break the rack.

Do I have any recourse? Is the mechanic in the wrong or is the car just old and just happened to go to pieces after the tire work was done? The car's never had an issue like this before. I had put the repairs on a credit card and Consumers' Checkbook claims I can dispute the remaining balance (I'd go through the official channels, of course, not just stop paying.) Do I go to the BBB even though they aren't registered there? Or give AAA a heads-up? All of the above?

posted by ziggly to Travel & Transportation (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ask the reputable shop what the damage is to the old rack. Is it simply very worn or is there acute damage to it? You'd have to really bang the hell out of a tie rod job to damage the rack. It's not impossible (and I don't know the details on this era Buicks, for sure), but ... once the old rack is pulled you might be able to tell more.
posted by introp at 2:55 PM on April 19, 2012

This could go either way, but these are my initial thoughts:

1: 40 miles is an excessive amount of test driving, to put no small point on it. To the point that at least 35 miles of that (and that is being generous) was NOT test driving, but was 'using the customers car for something'. You don't need to test drive a car for more than a mile or two to check a tie rod and wheel alignment, but I could see a long loop of 2-4 (fetching a coffee on the way back) being regular.

- Are you absolutely sure about the mileage change? 100% sure?

2: intermittent failure of assist is invariably (almost always, in fact) a hydraulic issue and is internal to the pump and the rack. It is within the valving and fluid transfer, not in the mechanical side of the steering rack system. It is very. very unlikely that changing tie rod ends could damage the hydraulic side of the rack.

- was it consistent? The steering was very stiff in one direction or with the same amount of steering lock applied? Or was it that you'd steer, and the steering would suddenly go very heavy (it is such a change that it feels like the steering has jammed).

3: It is unlikely that the hydraulic issue in the steering was foreseeable when the initial repair was completed and power steering valving failure could be a complete coincidence. It is also something that can suddenly happen out of the blue, so it is not inconceivable that it 'just happened'.

Now my gut feeling:

I think the repair shop did the initial work and the alignment and did the work competently (ie caused no extra damage). I think one of the mechanics or one of their friends used your car for something; uncharitably that could be an errand, to go on a date, whatever. Maybe even used your car to collect some parts for other cars in the shop. Either way, there are (to my mind) 35 unjustifiable miles while in their care for it to be a straight "We did the job and gave you the car back" transaction. Something additional occurred.

It is possible they knew about the steering issue, knew it wasn't their fault, but couldn't think of a way that they'd convince you that it wasn't their fault and thought they'd give the car back with (maybe 3 or 4 people test drove it to try and work out whether they'd caused it or what it actually was and whether it was safe to give back - that'd explain the mileage too). It is ALSO possible that one person test drove it, felt the weird steering feel, and a senior mechanic then drove it for an extended period afterwards and told the first guy he must have imagined the fault. Intermittent issues have a superb way of never showing up when someone that can diagnose it is behind the wheel.

Justification from their perspective for this action: It is very, very hard to explain to the lay person that while the two things are all part of the system (it's all 'steering', right?) that the faults are most likely unrelated (two different styles of system - mechanical and hydraulic). They were potentially concerned they'd be on the hook for a new rack because you would be unconvinced they'd not been responsible for the failure.

So maybe they gave you the car back and hoped that the issue wouldn't get worse (which it did) and that there would be enough separation between this repair and the subsequent failure that they'd not be held liable for something that likely isn't their fault. It is also possible that they convinced themselves that the fault was a fluke and had stopped happening or that the initial test driver imagined it.

Resulting action:

Honestly, I don't think you have any recourse with the original garage. I think they very definitely need to lose your custom as they don't seem to be awesome (especially with the reviews) and given the mileage issue and other customers saying extra faults appear could mean they use customers cars for their own use or some other shady practice. Walk away. However, I really can't see how even a one armed monkey could cause a hydraulic steering system failure by changing tie rod ends, especially if that damage is not immediately obvious to the new garage.

I think you were unlucky in how the failures occurred, and that this was a good lesson not to use the original garage. It raised enough suspicions for you to see the original garage for hat it is, but it doesn't look to me like they actually broke your car. I hope that helps.
posted by Brockles at 6:44 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you for your comments. Just wanted to update:

Regarding the mileage, I took a photo of the dashboard coming out of the shop and compared it to the mileage they had written on the initial estimate, and there was a 40-mile difference. I also believe there was a lot less gas than what I went in with, but my memory could be wrong there. So they could have written the wrong number down, but I do remember thinking "Whoa, the mileage is high" and "Whoa, didn't I fill up before dropping this off?" right when I got in the car. When I arrived at the shop to pick up the car, the car was running with the hood open, but without the car going anywhere this couldn't have jacked up the mileage in itself.

As far as I can tell, there are only two mechanics at the shop, so I doubt it went through a round of mechanics taking it for short test drives.

Yes, the steering failure was intermittent; first it was just while steering sharply to park, then started going out during city driving, like at a turn from a slow speed or stop. It's entirely possible that they could have missed it during a short test drive, but there's that 40 miles issue again.

I got the car back today and they said they don't take racks apart because they send them to be rebuilt, but that there was no obvious evidence of foul play. So, I won't be returning to the original garage because of all the other red flags, but I probably won't be pursuing any damage claims.
posted by ziggly at 9:15 AM on April 20, 2012

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