LEGAL FILE

'Reckless' store loses bid to cut $105,000 award to Spanish-language buyer

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A former Connecticut dealership that violated the Truth in Lending Act and the state’s unfair trade practices law must pay an arbitration award of more than $105,000 to a customer who spoke no English, a federal judge in New Haven has ruled.

Although the store advertised on Spanish-language TV stations, all the sales and finance documents that Julio Gomez signed were in English.

The award against Country Motors II Inc., which did business as Bob’s Dodge in Naugatuck, Conn., includes punitive damages stemming from its sale of two used vehicles to Gomez, who had recently moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico.

In November 2008, Gomez bought a 2007 Chevrolet TrailBlazer that developed mechanical problems, the decision said. In March 2009, dealership employees persuaded him to exchange it for a 2006 Nissan Murano and to keep the TrailBlazer until the bank retrieved it.

However, the “exchange” was actually a purchase, leaving Gomez responsible for two payments. He revoked acceptance of both vehicles and they were repossessed. As a result, the suit claimed, his credit was damaged, including reduction or cancellation of credit lines, denial of credit and a more-than-doubled credit card interest rate.

Gomez sued Country Motors, as well as the lenders and credit-reporting agencies involved in the transactions, but settled with all but Country. His lawyer, David Blinn of Rocky Hill, Conn., said he cannot disclose the settlement terms.

The dispute with Country Motors went to arbitration. The arbitrator found that the dealership added service contracts to the sales documents without telling Gomez that he could refuse them, misrepresented the scope of coverage under those contracts and falsely told him the service contracts were a precondition for financing.

In addition, the arbitrator said the dealership ignored Gomez’s statement about affordable maximum monthly payments, didn’t accurately disclose finance charges and failed to display a legally required Spanish-language buyer’s guide on the vehicles. On other claims, he found that the store misrepresented the sale of the Murano as an exchange and told Gomez it belonged to the dealer’s son when it actually had been an auction vehicle.

U.S. Judge Charles Haight Jr. confirmed the award, rejecting the dealership’s attempt to cut compensatory damages from $10,891 to $891 and to toss out or reduce the $54,454 punitive damages award.

Haight said compensatory damages were appropriate for damage to Gomez’s credit, adding that the amount of punitive damages was proper because the “evidence reveals a reckless disregard for the rights of others or an intentional and wanton violation of those rights.”

Finally, Haight upheld $40,000 in attorney fees.

Dealership lawyer Kevin Greene of Hartford, Conn., said no decision on a possible appeal has been made.

You can reach Eric Freedman at freedma5@msu.edu.

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