Suit seeks to enforce title-washing remedy

NADA disagees with consumer group litigants' approach

hstoffer@crain.com

WASHINGTON — Three consumer groups are suing the federal government to force creation of a national database of vehicle titles. The groups say they want to protect consumers from unknowingly buying rebuilt wrecks.

The so-called washing of titles that should be marked junk, salvage or flood-damaged also has harmed auto dealers. But the National Automobile Dealers Association says it won't join the lawsuit.

Instead, NADA supports legislation that would require insurers to disclose immediately all vehicles they declare total losses.

The consumer groups filing the suit argue that laws enacted in 1992 and 1996 require a national title database. Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said the Transportation and Justice departments have evaded their duties under those laws.

As a result, Claybrook said last week, consumers are getting stuck with vehicles that "can be too dangerous to drive."

Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is a longtime ally of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who founded Public Citizen.

Joining Public Citizen in the lawsuit are Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, and Consumer Action, both of California. The suit was filed last week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Deepak Gupta, a lawyer for Public Citizen, said he has no hard evidence that interest groups have worked to block creation of the database.

But "something is holding it up besides bureaucratic foot-dragging," he said.

Ivette Rivera, NADA's executive director of legislative affairs, says the dealers association still thinks the government should create a national title database.

But Rivera said that NADA prefers the measure that would require disclosure of total-loss information by insurers because it would provide more complete data more quickly.

The prime sponsor of the disclosure bill, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., resigned last year. NADA says it is talking with other lawmakers about advancing the bill. c

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