This article is intended to help you should you have a vehicle
warranty claim denied in circumstances in which an aftermarket product has been
used. The information describes the law on vehicle warranties and will provide a
sense of what is and is not an improper warranty denial.
After reviewing this information, you will be aware of the steps to take to fight unlawful warranty denials.
In many cases it will not be necessary to take all the steps outlined here because disputes are often resolved at an early stage.
What Does the Warranty Actually Say?
Start by re-reading the warranty documents. Become familiar with what the documents actually say, not what you think they should say. If the language is confusing, get help in understanding what it really means. Look for specific items or circumstances that may or may not be covered. Determine if there is a process specified for resolving disputes.
Federal law sets forth requirements for warranties and contains a number of provisions to prevent vehicle manufacturers, dealers and others from unjustly denying warranty coverage. With regard to aftermarket parts, the spirit of the law is that warranty coverage cannot be denied simply because such parts are present on the vehicle, or have been used. The warranty coverage can be denied only if the aftermarket part caused the malfunction or damage for which warranty coverage is sought. Disputes in this area usually boil down to arguments over facts and technical opinions, rather than arguments over interpretations of the law.
Check Vehicle History
Sometimes a malfunction in a new vehicle may be identified as a "pattern failure," a failure that is recognized as common to your make and model of vehicle. It may be a manufacturing defect which has become the subject of a government-mandated recall. You should check with another dealer, the vehicle manufacturer or an independent service providersuch as those listed belowto see if there are any Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs), field fixes or other service-related information for your vehicle which would indicate that the problem you are experiencing is a common one. In cases of government-mandated recalls, the dealer is obliged to notify you as a vehicle owner. However, you may check for yourself by calling the vehicle manufacturer's 800 number, the EPA (for emissions systems issues) or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for safety-related issues.
- EPA: 202/233-9040
- NHTSA: 800/424-9393
- Chiltons: 610/964-4600
- AllData: 916/684-5200
- Motor Publications: 800/426-6897
- American Automobile Manufacturers Association: 313/872-4311
- Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association: 202/296-8537
Determine the True Cause of the Problem
If possible, attempt to independently verify the accuracy of the claims made by the dealership. The manufacturer of the aftermarket part may be helpful to you in providing a technical assessment of the problem. If there is a reasonable possibility that the aftermarket product caused the problem, it may be best to try to reach a compromise. If, however, it is clear that the aftermarket product is unrelated to the problem, you should attempt to gather as much information as possible to support your claim. Useful evidence might include photos, copies of relevant service information, records of prior repairs performed under warranty, or the objective written opinion of a qualified third party (with relevant experience, accreditation, etc.).
Try to Work it Out With the Dealer
Once prepared with the appropriate support information and a basic understanding of the law, present the facts to the dealers service manager and make an effort to resolve the situation. Keep the discussion objective and professional. Make sure to take notes of any significant claims or explanations made by dealership personnel and try to obtain a written explanation if possible.
If discussions with the service manager do not bring about a resolution, speak with the owner of the dealership. Many problems can be resolved at this level. If there is a known pattern failure which matches your problem, be sure to bring this to the dealer's attention. The dealer is able to obtain reimbursement from the vehicle manufacturer under such circumstances. If there is no pattern failure, but other evidence that exists contradicts the dealers conclusion, be sure the dealer is made aware of it. Also explain that you are aware of your rights under EPA's emissions warranty and the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Again, if there is a reasonable possibility that either the aftermarket product or its installation could be the cause of the problem, your best bet is to suggest a compromise with the dealer. In many cases, presenting an objective technical assessment and a basic understanding of the law will do the trick.
However, if you believe that you are entitled to warranty service, but the dealer disagrees, you can take other steps to seek a resolution to the dispute.
Get it in Writing
If a dealership denies warranty coverage, they should be willing to do so in writing. Have the dealer describe the failure which is causing your problem AND how the dealer believes the aftermarket product installed is responsible for the problem. Keep an accurate log of all contacts and correspondence in addressing the warranty denial.
Contact the Vehicle Manufacturer's Zone Representative
If a car manufacturer backs your warranty, and you have a dispute with the dealer about either service or coverage, contact the local manufacturer's representative. The local or zone representative has the authority to adjust and make decisions about warranty service remedies or repairs to satisfy customers.
Some manufacturers are also willing to repair certain problems in specific models free of charge, even if the manufacturer's warranty does not cover the problem. Ask the zone representative or the service manager if there is such a policy.
The procedure for contacting your zone representative is usually provided in the vehicle owner's manual. This information can also be obtained from a dealer, or by calling the manufacturer's customer service number, as listed in the carmaker's owner's manual. Present your case to the zone representative. Be sure to indicate how the dealer responded to your information, especially if dealership personnel were notably uncooperative, etc. Once again, be sure to get as much information in writing as you can; request that any determinations or actions which are promised by the zone representative be confirmed by a letter or a fax.
Contact the Vehicle Manufacturer Directly
You may find that contact with the zone representative does not achieve resolve of the matter. If you are still not satisfied, the next step is to contact the vehicle manufacturer directly. Most carmakers maintain a contact office or a special department that is responsible for dealing with warranty issues.
Using the information you have gathered and any additional information you may have to supplement your case, forward a letter directly to the vehicle manufacturer's customer service office (sometimes called dispute resolution board or something similar). Be sure to explain your situation in detail and in a logical, easy-to-understand manner. Provide as much detail as you can about your contacts with the dealer and the zone representative. Do not hesitate to state if you felt you were treated improperly or unfairly by either. The vehicle manufacturer will almost always respond to you with a letter; sometimes promptly, sometimes not. Again, be sure to retain all correspondence in case you need it for future use. Generally, the vehicle manufacturer has the greatest interest in ensuring your satisfaction; they want you to remain loyal to their brand. As such, they will likely make a good-faith effort to resolve the issue particularly if there is a known pattern of similar failures. If there is a request for any additional information, be sure to keep a record of what you send. If the manufacturer should still decide against you, make sure that their refusal letter provides an explanation of how they believe the aftermarket part caused the problem.
Local Approaches You Can Try
If you cannot get satisfaction from the dealer, the zone representative or the manufacturer, contact one or all of the following:
- Better Business Bureau
- State Attorney General
- Local Department of Motor Vehicles
- State Consumer Protection Office
Many states also have county and city offices that intervene or mediate on behalf of individual consumers to resolve complaints.
You also might consider using a dispute resolution organization to arbitrate your disagreement if you and the dealer are willing. Under the terms of many warranties, this may be a required first step before you can sue the dealer or manufacturer. Check your warranty to see if this is the case.
If you bought the vehicle from a franchised dealer, you may be able to seek mediation through the Automotive Consumer Action Program (AUTOCAP). AUTOCAP is a dispute resolution program coordinated nationally by the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA: 800/252-6232), and sponsored through state and local dealer associations in many cities. Check with the dealer association in your area to see if they operate a mediation program.
National Approaches You Can Try
Since the manufacturer's failure to honor the terms of the warranty may be a violation of federal law, you can pursue the issue with the appropriate federal agency.
You can call or write the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and ask for assistance on non-emission-related problems. Input from consumers is very important to the work of the FTC. These contacts with consumers are often the first indication of a problem in the marketplace and may provide initial evidence to begin an investigation. Although the agency cannot act to resolve individual problems, it can act when it sees a pattern of possible law violations. FTC, Washington, D.C.: 202/326-3128.
The FTC also maintains regional offices to field consumer complaints. For the telephone number to one near you, see Attachment B.
In the case of a problem with an emission-related component, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the organization to contact. A pamphlet published by the EPA on emissions warranty matters called "What You Should Know About Your Auto Emissions Warranty," can help explain your options. In essence, the EPA requires that you exhaust all of your options with the vehicle manufacturer before you contact the Agency. In all cases, you must correspond with the EPA in writing. You must also provide copies of all correspondence with the dealer and manufacturer, as well as any independent evidence you may have that describes the cause of the problem. The better you are able to make your case that an aftermarket part was not the cause of the failure, the more likely you are to get EPA's help. The EPA is particularly interested in any evidence of a pattern failure being involved.
Warranty Complaint Field Operations and Support Division (EN-397F), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C. 20460. Telephone: 202/233-9040 or 202/233-9100.
You can also call the Bureau of Consumer Protections Office of Consumer & Business Education in Washington, D.C., at 202/326-3650.
The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act may also be helpful. Under this federal law, you can sue on breach of express and implied warranties. The main point of interest here is that the Act says warranty coverage may not be conditioned upon the use of only the vehicle manufacturer's parts unless the parts are provided free of charge. In other words, use of a non-carmaker product should not void your warranty unless it caused the problem.
Obviously, litigation can involve considerable time and expense on your part. However, if the cost of the warranty claim is high enough, this may be an option to consider. Any such lawsuit or claim would have to be fought on the unique merits of the case and we recommend that you consider finding qualified legal counsel familiar with this area of law. In some cases, the filing of a lawsuit may encourage a settlement of the dispute. You should also be particularly aware of the fact that once you file a lawsuit or claim against the dealer or manufacturer, your vehicle and your documentation may become material evidence and may be subject to inspection and reviews in the lawsuit.
You can also consider going to small claims court, where you can resolve disputes involving small amounts of money for a low cost. The clerk of your local small claims court can tell you how to file a suit and what the dollar limit is in your state. Again, this action will sometimes lead the parties to settle the dispute.
No matter which steps you undertake, always approach the situation in a professional manner. Fits of anger, shouting, threats and the like seldom accomplish anything other than aggravating the situation. The best strategy is to stay calm and tactfully demonstrate your knowledge of your rights and potential courses of action.
In most cases, it will not be necessary to go through the entire process described here. What you will normally find is that you will be able to resolve your situation at a fairly early stage if you have the proper information in written form and you approach the issue in a calm, professional manner.