Is my car dealer violating federal law?
January 22, 2007 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Do car repairs done at a non-authorized facility void the warranty?

My 2001 VW with about 80K miles suffered catastrophic engine failure last week. It's going to need a new engine. The dealer says the cause was an incorrectly installed timing belt tensioner which caused the timing belt to slip.

The timing belt was replaced around 65K miles at an independent garage. The car has been driven for over a year since the timing belt was replaced, so I'm not sure this was the proximate cause of the current problem, but it's probably difficult to prove this one way or the other.

The car has a 100,000 mile drive train warranty. The dealer is trying to get out of repairing it under warranty (and stick me for the $10,000 bill) by saying the belt replacement was not done at an authorized repair facility.

Am I screwed? I was under the impression that (US) federal warranty law (Magnuson-Moss) does not permit the warranty to lapse for having repairs done elsewhere. If not federal law, how about state law (Virginia)?

MeFi lawyers, help me please!
posted by Wet Spot to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Definitely try reading the warranty yourself. If you can't find your copy, demand one form the dealer who is making the claim. (Unless you've done that already and are hoping the law will void the warranty's unfortunate exemptions.)
posted by Doctor Barnett at 11:47 AM on January 22, 2007

IINAL, but my understanding of the Magnuson-Moss law is the same as yours, as long as the services described in the owners manual was done on time, and according to the service manual.

Have you talked to the repair facility about this yet (the timing belt guys)? They should be able to 'prove' they used proper parts, and proper installation. Ive done my own timing belt, and its fairly trivial. I would expect any mechanic with half a brain could get it right -- and as you said, 15k miles before failure is pretty clear it was done correctly.

Did the timing belt fail, and cause the pistons to crash into the valves? A friend of mine had the tensioner die on his VW Passat VR6 (~1997). The car was serviced by an Audi dealer. The dealer offered to replace the tensioner that had failed, but did not offer any help with the destroyed valves/head (it had 160k miles on it).

Start calling VW corporate, and make sure you have all your documentation in place to backup your claims of proper service.
posted by SirStan at 11:52 AM on January 22, 2007

Well before you do anything else, make them stop work. They're claiming that the work is necessitated by poor efforts by another shop and that - conveniently, even if it's true - gets them off the hook from an engine replacement.

You need to get independent verification that the root cause they claim is indeed to blame. Find a (different!) independent mechanic and call to see what they'd charge you to go look at it and give you their opinion.

If that is fairly obviously the root cause - and if the belt really did come loose I don't think you're going to be able to claim that shoddy work by someone other than the dealer should be covered by warranty - then the people you need to go after for money is the independent garage.

As far as a $10,000 bill - forget it. There's no reason to spend that kind of money on an engine replacement unless you're working on a Ferrari. You should be able to find someone to put in a rebuilt engine soup to nuts in the neighborhood of $5,000.
posted by phearlez at 11:53 AM on January 22, 2007

And if it *is* due to the shoddy workmanship of the other shop, they *should* pay for the new engine. They have insurance to cover this sort of thing. While it does seem unusual that it took 15,000 to fail, it could be possible that it was due to bad workmanship when the belt was installed.

I would bet that the real truth of the matter is that the dealer has no idea why it failed but when the saw it was done by a non-VW shop, they pointed the finger that way and accused them of shoddy workmanship. The problem is that it is diificult or impossible to objectively deterimine exactly why the belt failed, especially if the parts have been removed already.
posted by Doohickie at 12:14 PM on January 22, 2007

An ex-girlfriend had a Geo Storm many years ago. The car had something like 15k miles but was over 36 months old so the warranty had expired for time, not mileage.

The fuel pump failed, I researched and found out that was a common item around 15k miles, and they had fixed the issue in the new pumps. Apparently it's located in the tank so labor was like $400 and I can't remember the price of the pump.

So anyways, it had always been serviced at the dealer where she bought it and they were not going to cover this. Sure I understand the warranty was expired, so they shouldn't... however I called some GM warranty rep and bitched about this common failure and they ended up covering it.

I think if you can find this is common or something, talk to the "warranty rep", or basically whoever at VW approves paying the dealer for the warranty work. That person can overturn anything.

Good luck.
posted by thilmony at 12:18 PM on January 22, 2007

You obviously need a different dealer, although that's not much help now.

Also, $10,000 to replace an engine?! I've had one replaced for less than $1,000 in labor!
posted by wierdo at 12:20 PM on January 22, 2007

Geezus - $10,000 sounds really high. I just had my 02 GTI timing belt replaced, and they threatened me with the fact that if i didn't get in done RIGHT THIS MINUTE, my engine would be completely toast when it inevitably failed, and that it would cause me $4000-5000 bucks to replace.

Call VW corporate. There is a lot of variance between dealerships on how they handle warranty claims (a lot can't be bothered with the paperwork). I know many a person who got corporate to pony up for a claim (albeit for smaller ticket items like window regulators and ignition coils), so it definitely can't hurt.
posted by cgg at 12:40 PM on January 22, 2007

cause me => cost me (*arg*)

Another thought - if your dealership is quoting you at a very high rate (parts are parts, the only thing they can stick you on is the labour) and you do get VW corporate to help, there's no way they'll pay those high prices, either...)
posted by cgg at 12:54 PM on January 22, 2007

Well, the fact that VW (who covers warr claims, as opposed to your independently-owned dealer) won't pay that much may well factor into why they're giving you this crap. Any of us walks into a shop and we're going to pay an hourly rate that's probably between $60 and $100 an hour for X number of hours for a job, plus parts. Corporate has a deal with them to pay notably less in dollars and likely some percentage off the ASE-estimated time as well

So if you had to do job X for $10,000 that you got paid for today by the customer or $6,000 that you got paid for next month by VW which would you rather do? Thankfully there's regional reps who represent the interest of VW - keeping you happy enough to buy a VW next time you want a new car - rather than the interest of the dealership - to sell you a car at THEIR dealership.

Going back and looking at your description I'm a little confused though. You cite "catastrophic engine failure" which they say was caused by "an incorrectly installed timing belt tensioner which caused the timing belt to slip." (emphasis mine)

If the belt BROKE it's hard to hold VW responsible. It was installed improperly, was the fault of the tensioner, or was a faulty belt. I'd assume some combination of 1 & 3 - a mediocre part that was midhandled, nicked, something, before/during installation.

The bottom line is that it wasn't their part that broke and caused the damage. It's possible it was a VW part, in which case your independent dealer has a recourse to go after VW over this. But they're the ones who should be standing behind this repair and any damages from it not being done correctly.

If the belt SLIPPED I am hard pressed to imagine how that could cause catastrophic failure. You'd notice horrible running if it slipped a notch or two somehow, but damage? I don't see it.

How did this catastrophic failure manifest itself?
posted by phearlez at 2:42 PM on January 22, 2007

Response by poster: I've only talked to them on the phone, but my understanding is that the belt did not break, just slipped enough to cause the pistons to hit the valves.
posted by Wet Spot at 3:30 PM on January 22, 2007

Response by poster: Which bent the valves, dinged up the head, and scored the piston walls.
posted by Wet Spot at 3:42 PM on January 22, 2007

The timing belt change on recent VW engines is notoriously difficult to do properly for the inexperienced and you aren't the first person to have an engine destroyed after a bad timing belt job (if this is in fact the case). phearlez has it above: get them to stop work and get an experienced (as in, experienced working on VWs) independent mechanic to look at it to determine if the tensioner was indeed the cause of failure. Then, if you can, get the car to an independent mechanic who can replace the engine for a reasonable price (I recall someone telling me that they had their (diesel) VW engine of that vintage replaced for half of that amount).

Is the engine a TDI? If so, your best bet to find a good, local mechanic are the TDIClub forums. Even if it is a gas engine, you'll be able to find a lot of good information about timing belt failures by searching the forums there.
posted by ssg at 5:22 PM on January 22, 2007

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