How to deal with possibly litigious client
August 11, 2012 8:08 PM   Subscribe

We're a small auto-repair business. How do we deal with a potentially litigious client?

Recently, our small, family-owned auto repair business received an email from a client who is dissatisfied with an expensive repair that the client says was not completed to their satisfaction. We take client concerns very seriously, but there is something about this one that seems different. The complaint was made to us via email, and the content and style of the message reads very much as if it had been written by a lawyer.

This gives us pause because usually our clients just talk to us about their concerns. Because we know that auto repair is not an exact science -- diagnosis can be very challenging and require considerable research and time, and even then it is not always possible to get everything right the first time, although we manage to do so probably 97 times out of 100 -- we want to know when a client is not satisfied. As a small business in a closely knit community, where word of mouth is everything and many of our clients are people who are in our lives in other ways, too (friends or neighbors, for example, although the client in question is neither), we take the concerns that are brought to us very seriously and make every effort to resolve them to the satisfaction of the client. Once in a while, this policy results in a (financial) loss to us, but as a cost of doing business and preserving what we believe is a well-deserved reputation for integrity as well as competence, we consider it a worthwhile investment.

As I noted above, the complaint that this question is about is in reference to a complex (and expensive) set of repairs, so it is not impossible that the client has legitimate concerns. However, the lawyerly language and rhetorical style of the email, which requests that we respond via email and agree by a certain date to a very specific action, makes this complaint significantly different from others we have received over the years. The requested action would ostensibly commit us to a considerable expenditure of funds and at least a tacit admission of error. We are not comfortable with that because at this point, we do not have enough evidence to know with any certainty whether we are in fact responsible for some or all (or none) of the complaints cited. The client has not provided us with documentation or offered any, and they said in the email that they would not be comfortable letting us look at the car again, as they blame us for problems they claim are now at issue. So we cannot now rule out the possibility that they may be having buyer's remorse over an expensive repair that delivered as promised but did not make their car run like new again and/or prevent subsequent and possibly unrelated problems. It happens.

At this point, then, without significantly more information, there is vitually no chance that we will agree to their terms in an email by the deadline they've set, so I guess my question to you all is how to deal with this situation. As I said above, we have had to deal with complaints before -- there really is no such thing as 100% customer satisfaction, and we make mistakes sometimes, just like everyone who's human -- but this one is different. It reads different and it feels different. My antenna was quivering hard as I read that email.

So, I am asking: Do we need to lawyer up on Monday? (I think I already know the answer to that one.) Do we acknowledge the email in any way prior to speaking to legal counsel? If so, how do we respond?

I should probably note that I am disinclined to respond until we have sought legal advice but would be interested in hearing what the MeFi community has to say.

Thanks in advance for any insights you might have for us.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, get a lawyer. No, don't acknowledge before your lawyer gets involved. This will be money well spent.
posted by mynameisluka at 8:12 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lawyer. First thing Monday morning, in fact: lawyer. The fact that he offers no evidence of any error on your part, plus he won't even let you take a look at the car while insisting you accept, in writing, full responsibility --- well, heck: lawyer.
posted by easily confused at 8:17 PM on August 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

I would also say lawyer up! Do not respond to the email yet, you need a professional to help guide you in terms of the next steps and how to communicate with this individual because you don't want to say too much or have the client perceive things in a certain way simply based on your word choice. You also need to be on the same level of communication in terms of "lawyerly language" and "rhetorical style" of communication.
posted by livinglearning at 8:43 PM on August 11, 2012

Do not contact the former client. Retain a lawyer immediately.

There's a not-insignificant chance you'll luck out and the client is just a pompous windbag who likes to write in florid legalese when he's feeling full of himself; such people typically fold when called on their bullshit or flame out spectacularly.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:43 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Most people who will threaten to sue you have no idea how they might even start to go about that, and are just blowing hot air. Still, I would retain a lawyer and let them tell you if you should even respond at all.

I once had a former housemate threaten to sue me vacate he thought I stole his 5 gallon arrowhead water jug when I moved out. He never actually sued.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:46 PM on August 11, 2012

Do you have a phone number for this customer? Give them a call. Ask some questions about the problem and find out what they are looking for.

You are under no obligation to do anything as a result of an email, no matter how official and lawyer-ly the language may seem, or what demands they make. It's not a legal notice. it's not on a lawyer's letterhead. it's not sent to by a method that requires you to acknowledge receipt.

You might say something along the lines of "I got your email, and i'd like to find out what issues are you having and how can we help you resolve them? (don't admit guilt or responsibility of course)

Document the phone call. (time, date, duration) by calling you are acting in good faith. you are not avoiding them, you're not ignoring them. This can only help you if things progress to a lawyering-up phase.

Gather all the info you have from the job including the parts replaced, time spent, anything and everything you have on the repair incuding who worked on their car and when. Get your docs together and familiarize yourself with them. dig up the repair info from the factory service manual and compare your work to that.

You can't be expected to fix their problem if they won't let you. You don't owe them money if they won't first give you the opportunity to make it right.

Unless you believe that someone could have been injured as a result of your faulty repair (in which case your insurance would kick in there) there is no reason for them to be dictating terms to you. Think about how many hours of free labor you could give away in your shop to make the customer happy instead of giving the equivalent to a lawyer.

(i am not a lawyer, but i do own a small business that fixes and installs things for a living)
posted by freq at 8:50 PM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Okay, I'm going to go ahead and disagree. I can't see the harm in responding to this guy with a basic first step, like, "We can't move forward until we see the car," just to see what the next action on his side might be. If he freaks out, then yeah, get a lawyer. But it might just be that he wrote a poorly-worded letter, or took someone's advice to write it/have it written in that manner. He might calm down, and I think you owe it to your business to try to take at least one step without bringing in a lawyer.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:51 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

On preview, I was about to say what Inspector.Gadget said. I was also tempted to say "oh, you've met my tenant?" Seriously, this guy sounds like a guy I'm renting a house to, but that's another story.

I agree with the advice given about, up to a point, but I think it's more likely he has a big vocabulary, and/or a thesaurus, and/or a belief that he can intimidate you.

Question - do you have typical mechanic's legalese written on your repair orders? If you do, this should provide some legal cover to protect you from unrealistic claims.

IANAL, but provided you do have such language, I'd be inclined to ask to meet with him. Do NOT discuss the matter with him by e-mail, but invite him to come to the shop and discuss his issue verbally. He may have started out with a confrontational style because he *knows* a garage is going to try to screw him over, and if you make a reasonable effort to placate him on whatever issue he's having, he may be so off-balance he actually becomes reasonable.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:56 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

lest I be misconstrued, I'm talking about his bad attitude when I say (sarcastically) "*knows* a garage is going to try to screw him over," not your reputation nor that of the industry.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:58 PM on August 11, 2012

No way would I respond prior to speaking with an attorney. If even then. Watching that video with a lawyer and a cop telling why to never, ever talk to cops has burned some things into me, primary being that you can inadvertently say something that could be used against you by some legal beagle. (Also watching the hell a friend of mine got himself into by talking to cops rather than hiring an attorney -- whoa! This guy got hosed.)

And his demands are ridiculous -- not going to let you even look at the vehicle, much less straighten the "problem" out? Again, don't address this in any way -- not phone call, not anything -- prior to talking to a lawyer, but I just can't see working with this customer at all if they are not willing to work with you.

Small community does make it difficult, for sure. But that's part of being in business, sometimes you've got to take some lumps, even if it's not called for at all, plus anyone who has had anything to do with this clown knows what you're up against.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:00 PM on August 11, 2012

Does he say what the consequences are for not meeting his demands in his time frame?

While I get the keep your mouth shut and lawyer up, my gut tells me to contact him, via phone, and ask about his problem. He may not take your call, he may tell you to call his lawyer or he may talk to you. If he does, ask him questions. What exactly is he not satisfied about? Why can't we look at the car to see what you are talking about? Be nice and without admitting or agreeing to anything, feel him out. He may calm down after hearing your friendly manner. If he keeps saying, "You did this and you did that" just calmly ask him to see what he is talking about. If he says it is at another shop now or some shop told him this, ask for the name of the shop. Maybe you can all meet at that shop and look at it.

I would try to call him on Sunday. I doubt he will take the call, but then you are on record as being proactive. Then, call the attorney Monday to ask for basic advice.

The way written, also makes me thing this is the guy's modus operandi. He probably tries to get over on folks through intimidation and blackmail of reputation.

While I appreciate your attitude to make things right (I would use your shop just based on this question), you don't have an obligation to make it right his way.

Other thoughts: Not sure how much the cost of the repairs were, but maybe consider the cost of the lawyer versus just returning his money (or his money less parts costs) and sucking it up. Also, would your insurance company be of help here? I have used a local gentleman to fix one of my cars and at the time of the estimate when I noted that a $2500 repair on a $5,000 car (when fixed) was a scary concept, he told me two things that I really respected. One, he will fix it and the car will be worth that $5,000 and I knew I could not get a car as good as that for $5k, and, two, he offered to buy the car as is for $2500. This told me that he really believed in his work and his value placed on the car.

He fixed foreign cars, mostly Volvo's (I did not have a Volvo) and would also buy and sell used cars (small time) for his clientele. Maybe buy this clown's car from him and sell it?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:33 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't respond and I also wouldn't give an attorney any money yet. Anyone can dash off an officious and threatening e-mail on a bad day. E-mail doesn't always arrive. Wait.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:35 PM on August 11, 2012

I don't see a problem with you sending an e-mail saying exactly what you've said here - you cannot agree to anything until you've seen the car/documents. I don't understand why you need to get a lawyer involved (you say the client is using "lawyerly language" but I'm missing where the client said they were using a lawyer) ust yet.

It may be the client's been burned in the past, and I admit I'm empathizing with them. I brought my car in for a very expensive repair and two days later the problem's occurring again. I brought it in to the same mechanic but they said they didn't see the problem - they performed the ob 100% to spec! why is the AC still rattling!? At this point I am considering e-mailing them so I have proof that I did try to contact them on x date after the original repair. I would include a lack of any response in any arguments.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:49 PM on August 11, 2012

Your initial responses have it right, but they lack depth of reasoning, and some of the later "why not call?" answers seem to assume that consulting a lawyer will automatically escalate something that could easily (or at least possibly) be fixed.

Lawyers do not automatically "go nuclear;" we try to get the best result for our clients. Sometimes that means an aggressive posture, but often it simply means that we explain the law and point out the traps, and let the client respond. In fact, when one receives a friendly response "from" a business owner, it may very well have been drafted by (or in cooperation with) the owner's attorney. It may have been specifically worded not to sound like a lawyer wrote it; the lawyer's contribution may be most visible in its apparent absence.

IANYL, and TINLA, but if the cost of repair is greater than you can afford to write off, then the cost of a half-hour or hour with your lawyer will almost certainly be less than the risk of a naive response that blows up on you later.

As a businessman, you should have a regular attorney you can consult on issues such as this. Regardless of whether they're frequent or uncommon, it's quite important to establish a relationship in advance so that you know what you can expect when you call, and the lawyer knows the history of your business and your style, so s/he can provide advice that will work and that you'll be comfortable following.
posted by spacewrench at 10:32 PM on August 11, 2012 [25 favorites]

What spacewrench said. I would favorite it 20 times if I could.
posted by Happydaz at 10:53 PM on August 11, 2012

Just want to say, that if a lawyer was already involved on your client's side, and this was a run up to some kind of action, it's extremely unlikely to come in the form of an email. Emails get lost. Lawyers send letters, usually registered, so they can establish the kind of chain that you're worried about.
posted by smoke at 12:35 AM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some advice: respond in kind.

If he retained a lawyer, the email would be from the law firm email ID, even more likely, formal letter via mail, on letterhead, followed by registered mail.

This person is not "lawyering up" but rather "Googling up." No need to overkill;call and invite him over to talk in person, or on the phone.
posted by Kruger5 at 1:42 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do not respond in any way to this person. Contact a lawyer and allow them to do it.
posted by ZaneJ. at 3:21 AM on August 12, 2012

Well here's the thing. It both is, and isn't, the time to lawyer up.

It is in the sense that you're a small business, so you should already have a lawyer on speed dial. If you don't, you're Doing It Wrong. So this shouldn't require you to go out and retain new counsel or anything. You should just be able to give your Guy a call, have a fifteen minute conversation, and go from there. This'll cost you $50-100, but it'll be money well spent.

But it isn't in the sense that this really doesn't sound like litigation just yet. Thing is, if you hire a lawyer and tell your customer to contact said lawyer, it's far more likely to become litigious. The fact that you're consulting an attorney isn't technically something this guy needs to know, and there really isn't anything to be gained at this point by tipping your hand.

So I think your steps on Monday morning are: (1) call your lawyer (you do have one, right?), and then, assuming your lawyer is okay with it, (2) call this guy and say "Hey, why don't you bring your car around so we can take a look at it?"

If he won't do that, then something is definitely fishy, and you'll look better in any resulting litigation. A guy who demands that you do certain things without letting you know what the heck is going on won't play well to a judge or jury.You might even have an affirmative defense, i.e., "We offered to take a look at his issue and work with him on it, but he said no."
posted by valkyryn at 3:39 AM on August 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, but do what your lawyer says, regardless. If he says that you should let him handle it, then let him handle it. Or whatever.

Also, you should probably consider calling your insurance company. I'm not saying there's a claim or coverage, but if you get sued, your insurance company is going to want to know as soon as possible, generally sooner. If they know about things pre-suit, they can sometimes help there not be one. They might also pay for a lawyer, which is no bad thing.
posted by valkyryn at 3:41 AM on August 12, 2012

Every business should have a relationship with a good attorney. Period, end of sentence. You need to have an attorney not just for potentially litigious situations such as this but whom you can contact for solid advice that will help keep you out of trouble.

An attorney who is a trusted advisor is just such a person.

In this case, it is well worth the money to contact your attorney and ask them to respond in kind on your behalf.

Chances are that you are dealing with a blowhard who thinks he can bully people into giving him things. Sending threatening legal-language heavy letters like this is a common tactic. A simple one page letter from your counsel on his/her letterhead, politely asking for details, records, to schedule an in-person review of the complaint, etc. will likely be more than enough to shut this guy up and send him on his not-so-merry way.

At a minimum you will be able to sleep better at night knowing that a professional is looking out for your best interests and will counsel you in a manner to limit your liability.

Small business is hard - especially word of mouth small business. Everyone has dealt with that customer who is never satisfied, who will raise holy hell over the slightest infraction and who will badmouth you for any and all transgressions. These people in reality rarely carry much weight with their peers because those who know them know that they're full of themselves and overreact. If they badmouth you to strangers - so what? We've all heard bad things about such-and-such business, but unless you personally know someone who has had a bad experience will you take that critique very seriously? Not likely.

But back to the point at hand: spend the few hundred dollars to have an attorney review and respond. You will be more wise and relaxed for it.
posted by tgrundke at 8:01 AM on August 12, 2012

Lawyers are expensive, and I don't see the need to get one at this stage in the game. IANAL, but I sometimes discuss money issues with frustrated clients and run difficult issues by our company lawyer, so I have a limited familiarity.

In your position, I would respond to him with a short e-mail saying you're sorry that he feels he has been mistreated (make sure you frame this solely as you being sorry for his feelings, not for any wrongdoing on your part). Explain to him mildly that while your company strives very hard to ensure customer satisfaction, you are running a business and that means that you can't just take people's claims at face value - you need to examine the car before you can determine what steps to proceed with.

The key is to show that you are not ignoring his complaint, while at the same time taking reasonable steps to protect yourself by verifying it. The shorter the e-mail is, the better - in your shoes, I'd make it no more than three sentences tops. The more you say, the more potential ammo you're giving him if he does eventually take you to court.

My hypothesis is that your client will go on on a pompous sidetrack about customer satisfaction and try to make you feel that this can be resolved if you could only address his hurt feelings. This is a trap - he is trying to make you apologize for more than you should, so that you are tacitly accepting blame for wrongdoing. When he does this, do not get into a prolonged dialogue - simply send another short email recapping exactly what you've said already in almost exactly the same words: you're sorry that he feels this way, but as you've already stated, you can't proceed on this issue without any way to empirically verify his claims. Rinse and repeat.

He'll probably burn out and give up after two to three back-and-forths of this nature. If he actually escalates and you receive a letter from a lawyer, then it's time to lawyer up.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:28 AM on August 12, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Many thanks to everyone who commented on this thread. I appreciate all the thoughtful replies as well as the affirmation and support that accompanied many of them.

I think spacewrench has got it exactly right. We have been in business for only a few years, and while we have been fortunate to do well from the beginning, it is just in the past year or so that things have really started to take off for us. Most of that has been very good, but this incident has been a real wake-up call for us about the kinds of things we need to be prepared for and try to protect ourselves against from here on out.

As of today, we have not responded to the client. We do plan to speak to legal counsel before doing so. As spacewrench rightly notes, we do not feel that doing so necessarily has to escalate the situation, and in fact we do not want to escalate it. We just want to be as well informed as we can possibly be, given the situation.

Regarding the “lawerly language” of the email: On the basis of what we know about the client, which admittedly is not that much, we have reason to believe that the s/he has a family member (or more than one) who is a lawyer. So it costs them little or nothing to get help composing an officious-sounding email like the one we got. We also have a sense that this may not be the first time the client has done something like this, i.e. complained about a product or service by using legal-sounding intimidation tactics to try to get a pay-out. At this point, I don’t have much to go on apart from my gut, but I have a sense that the client’s game might be to try to intimidate us into paying him/her some sum of money to make this go away. If that’s the case, I think it is a really crappy thing to do. For one thing, it does not square with our ethics, and for another, if they have a legitimate reason for their dissatisfaction, meaning if it really is our mistake, we are willing to try to make it right. When we don't know whether it was our mistake or not, we are always open to getting to the bottom of it.

When a client says they no longer trust us with their car, as this one has said, I would not try to force them to agree to further repairs at our shop, but we have good relationships with people at a lot of other shops in town, and we would be open to figuring out a way to work it out. But the client seems to think we should simply agree that we will hand over money as s/he sees fit and admit fault when we have no idea whether such remedies are justified.

As tempting as it seems in some ways, we are not comfortable paying the client to go away with our first having a lot more information than we’ve got, in part because the repairs in question add up to a lot of money. But our discomfort also has to do with the heavy-handedness of the client’s tactics, this zero-to-"confirm-by-x-time-on-y-date-that-you-will-comply." Several of you have suggested that the client is possibly a pompous windbag/blowhard/bully, and I think you may be right about that. We just don’t feel that it all adds up. It feels like the client is trying to get us to start negotiating the amount of money we are eventually going to hand over to them, and I don’t think that framing is appropriate as the first step in a client-complaint process.

Anyway, to all the commenters here, we can’t thank you enough for the awesome thread that has developed from the OP. The support of the MeFi community has lifted our spirits tremendously in the course of an otherwise somewhat stressful situation. Thank you, friends.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 3:26 PM on August 12, 2012

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