European Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt, Germany
Laws that protect stateside Americans from poor workmanship or faulty repairs on new cars do not apply to customers of the military’s new-car sales program, because AAFES officials chose not to provide such safeguards.
Nearly every state in the nation has some form of repair-replace law, commonly referred to as “lemon laws,” requiring automakers and dealers to repair new cars in a timely manner or replace them. But Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials decided it was not “appropriate to include such protection in their agreement with auto manufacturers, said Thomas Gallagher, head of the AAFES automotive branch in Dallas.
Consumer advocates and auto industry experts say the omission of such protection places overseas military customers at a severe disadvantage.
“I hate to think that there’s nothing to prevent the manufacturers from turning their back on the military over there. But if they respond to this situation the way they did for so long in the United States, then they are really doing a disservice to people in uniform,” said Rosemarv Dunlap, president of Motor Voters, a Washington-based consumer advocate group that has championed the spread of lemon laws throughout the States.
Gallagher and other officials involved with the military new-car sales program insist that AAFES customers are not being taken advantage of and that a special lemon law for them is unnecessary. During contract negotiations with Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, officials discussed including language that required the automakers to replace defective vehicles, Gallagher said.
“We decided it was not appropriate,” he said.
Gallagher and other AAFES officials said they believed military people could rely on U.S. consumer protection laws and that these laws would supercede the new car contract. However, attorneys in the States said U.S. lemon laws do not apply to car purchases made outside the country.
Essentially, lemon laws require automakers and dealers to repair or replace defective new cars in a fixed period or face possible court action. The first state to introduce lemon-law legislation was California in 1982. It was Dunlap’s organization, then only a group of angry car buyers, that inspired state lawmakers to introduce the measure.
Most lemon laws set a maximum number of times a dealer can attempt to repair a recurring problem in a new car before the car officially becomes a lemon.
The laws usually give manufacturers the option of replacing the car or refunding the customer’s money, Dunlap said.
New York’s lemon law allows the manufacturer or dealer who sold the car four chances to make the same repair. If the problem still exists after the fourth repair attempt, the car is considered a lemon. Also, if a car is out of service for more than 30 days during the first two years of operation because of a factory defect or dealer repair error, the car is considered a lemon.
Customers who feel a dealership or manufacturer has violated a lemon law can bring the case before their state’s arbitration board, which has the authority to rule on the issue and require compliance from the businesses.
Since New York enacted its lemon law in 1987, more than $60 million in refunds and other awards have been issued to unsatisfied car buyers in that state, according to the New York assistant attorney general, Stephen Mindell. In some cases, customers have been awarded thousands of dollars above the price of the car for mental anguish caused by receiving poor repair service.
Forty-seven other states have similar lemon laws, and the two that don’t, Alabama and Alaska, have legislation in the works, Dunlap said. But some AAFES customers discovered the hard way that the laws do not apply to American military people overseas.
For example, Spec. Michael Carpenter of Bad Kissingen, Germany, purchased a 1991 Plymouth Sundance in March of last year from a Chrysler desalership in Schweinfurt, Germany. The soldier picked up his new car a few weeks later at the port in Bremerhaven. But just two hours into his drive home, the front end began making a strange noise and pulling very hard to the left, he said.
Carpenter contacted the sales agent who sold him the car and was referred to Military Car Sales in Kronberg. Military Car Sales is a subsidiary of a New York-based firm that handles all Chrysler and General Motors sales to military people in Europe.
“I told them I didn’t want this unsafe car, but they kept insisting I take it to a garage that specialized in paint and body work,” Carpenter said. “They told me that lemon laws don’t apply in Europe. I have to keep the car, they said.”
New York’s Mindell explained that because the transaction of buying a car through AAFES occurs in Europe, no U.S. laws apply. Those who choose stateside delivery “stand a better chance of winning a lemon case,” he said.
There are also many federal consumer protection laws that car buyers in the States have used in battles with dealers and manufacturers, most notably the U.S. Commercial Code. However, none of these broad statutes applies to Americans overseas either, Mindell said.
In addition to the troubled front end in Carpenter’s Plymouth, other defects surfaced, including problems with the horn, turn signals, passenger-side door lock and driver’s seat belt.
“I did have the highly acclaimed air bag,” Carpenter said. “But thank heavens I didn’t have to rely on it.”
As of January, some of the repairs still had not been made to the vehicle and, although AAFES representatives pledged their support, Carpenter said he has yet to see the exchange pressure Military Car Sales to assist in resolving the matter.
In some states, customers who find safety defects like those in Carpenter’s car do not have to give the dealers an opportunity to make repairs, Mindell said.
“People have won arbitration cases where they simply left a car at a dealership with the keys in it and walked awav,” he said.
AAFES officials said the car companies have an excellent record of dealing with customers who complain of problems with their new cars.
“There has never been a situation where I had to threaten or coerce the companies into addressing a problem, said William Munn, who doubles as the new-car program manager and marketing director for AAFES-Europe.
In that case, Dunlap said, there is no reason not to include some form of a lemon-law clause in the contract between AAFES and the automakers.
“If the companies involved in the program give such great service, a lemon law would be “only a good-faith formality,” she said.