Jim Butler Chevrolet in suburban St. Louis is suing a customer who took issue with the repair bill for his Chevrolet Malibu, and is seeking $25,000 in damages.
Dwayne Cooney took his vehicle to the dealership for service after hours on Jan. 31 because the key fob wouldn’t work, the tire pressure monitor light remained on and an airbag warning light had illuminated.
Those are some of the few facts on which both parties agree. After that, the dispute quickly turns into a “he said, he said” argument before the court.
The dispute has boiled over into questions of defamation vs. free speech on the Internet, and how far a dealership has to go in today’s online world to placate a disgruntled customer.
The dealership told Cooney, also of suburban St. Louis, that General Motors had notified it of a possible fault in the wiring and that repairs to his Malibu could be lengthy.
According to Cooney, he approved a maximum of four hours of work on the car. The dealership says that he acknowledged the complexity of the work to be done.
According to the dealership, Cooney was informed that his car would be looked at on Monday, Feb. 3, and was offered a rental car, which he took.
When the dealership called him back and told him the repair took more than the maximum four hours, Cooney took issue.
The dealership says it gave Cooney a good deal, charging for 4.5 hours of labor, when the job took more than five, reducing his bill to $553 from $674 after negotiation.
But the dealership didn’t realize that Cooney had a camera attached to his dashboard, which was recording work done on the car. Cooney later posted a 17-minute video taken by the camera, accompanied by his after-the-fact narration, on YouTube. He says the video proves the work took just an hour and a half.
Jim Butler Chevrolet disputes the video and denies any overcharging, saying that the video has been edited and does not show the true amount of time the vehicle spent being diagnosed and then serviced.
The camera in Cooney’s car records on a loop and tapes over older recordings, erasing them.
“The video shows only one afternoon of our tech working on his vehicle,” Brad Sowers, co-owner of Jim Butler Chevrolet, told Automotive News. “He neglected to show any of the work done in the previous two days.”
‘What did you do?’
“I never disputed that they worked on it on any previous day,” Cooney told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The question is, if you did, what did you do?” He noted that the problems were fixed during the time shown on the video.
Cooney did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Court filings show that the mechanic spent 3.22 hours diagnosing and repairing the problem with the vehicle on Monday, the day before the video that was posted online begins.
Cooney told the Post-Dispatch that he has cameras, like the one that captured the repairs, posted around his home and in all of his cars. “We have them in all our vehicles, and they record 24 hours a day for the protection of our family and our vehicles,” Cooney told the paper, which identified him as a security specialist.
Said Sowers: “The irony of it is, the fuse that was causing the problems was likely the result of [Cooney] installing the dash cam on his car.”
As the video began gathering views online, the dealership began to worry about the impact the video might have on the store’s reputation. Sowers filed a defamation lawsuit against Cooney demanding that he delete the video, and on Feb. 24 a judge ordered the video to be taken off YouTube.
Eight days later, the judge reversed herself in favor of Cooney on the injunction that would have forced him to remove the video from YouTube, citing First Amendment protection of speech.
But the suit against Cooney by the dealership remains, seeking damages of $25,000, reflecting what the store calls damage to its reputation. That is the minimum amount for which a suit can be brought in the St. Louis County Circuit Court Division 20; any less, and the dispute would go to small claims court.
‘Refused to meet’
A date has not been set for a court hearing.
“I have been trying to meet with Mr. Cooney every day since this went up online,” Sowers said. “He has refused to meet with me.”
Sowers said that in an effort to secure a meeting with Cooney, the dealership has offered to drop the lawsuit if he deletes the video and pays $8,000 of the legal fees incurred by Jim Butler Chevrolet.
“We made that offer to try to get something going. [Cooney] keeps changing his story,” Sowers said. “If he negotiated with us and said he would take the video down but not pay the legal fees, we would agree to that.”
In response to Cooney’s video, the Chevy store created a video of its own, documenting the service process at the dealership, Sowers said.
For each click the dealership’s video received, the store donates $10 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. So far, the donation total stands at $10,000.
“I think we are all tired of the Internet boogeyman,” Sowers said. “People can post whatever they want, even if it is a lie. I’ll paraphrase Mark Twain: ‘A lie can make it all around the world, while the truth is still putting on its shoes.’”
You can reach Sean Gagnier at firstname.lastname@example.org