LEGAL FILE

Mercedes store wins suit over English-only documents

When David Lopez turned 16, his parents, Gregorio and Dominga Lopez, agreed to buy him a new 2007 Mercedes-Benz SLK35 in appreciation for his help at the family business.

Although the elder Lopezes had lived in the U.S. since 1988, they still predominantly spoke and read Spanish, a factor that would become a focal point in their lawsuit against the dealership over their sales and financing experience.

The trial court found for the dealership, and last month the California Court of Appeal did, too.

Here’s what happened, according to court documents.

The Lopezes initially visited Mercedes-Benz of Fresno sometime in early 2007, when they met with a Spanish-speaking salesman and ordered an SLK35 from out of state. When the car arrived at the store in March, however, their original salesman was unavailable. So they asked David to meet them at the dealership to interpret for them.

English documents

David acted as translator for his parents’ negotiations with an English-speaking salesman and English-speaking sales manager, who prepared a “four-square” form that included a total price of about $60,782, an interest rate of about 20 percent and monthly payments of $1,323 for six years. A four-square -- also called a read-back in court papers -- is a document with four boxes for trade-in value, purchase price, down payment and monthly payment.

David also acted as translator during negotiations with the English-speaking F&I manager, who promised a better interest rate if the parents bought additional items. The Lopezes bought a service contract for $6,488, chrome wheels for $2,125, a GAP contract for $599, a paint-and-fabric protection contract for $599 and a LoJack vehicle recovery system for $799, according to the complaint.

With options, the price totaled about $72,000, with 10.69 percent interest and monthly payments of $1,244.

The dealership provided the documents to the parents in English only.

‘Really nice car’

About two months after the transaction, David reviewed the documents and discovered the $72,000 purchase price.

“He told his parents, who thought the amount was high but said it was a really nice car. They took no steps at that time to rescind or otherwise object to the contract,” according to the Court of Appeal decision.

When the car was totaled in 2009, the insurer paid the lender about $37,000, leaving an unpaid loan balance of about $9,000.

The parents made a claim on the GAP policy and were told it had been canceled. David called the dealership, which said it had no record of the cancellation.

The dealership attempted to resolve the matter, but the parents sued, accusing the dealership of violations of California’s sales, finance and consumer protection laws, misrepresentation and concealment. That included failing to provide the parents with a Spanish translation of their purchase contract.

The dealership paid the loan balance after litigation began.

Appeals panel unanimous

At a nonjury trial, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the dealership and awarded it attorney fees. He held that the state’s foreign-language document requirement didn’t apply because the parents brought their own English-language interpreter, David, to negotiate, although he was only 16.

The three-judge appellate panel unanimously upheld the verdict.

“If the buyer brings an interpreter who negotiates with the seller in English, then the seller does not negotiate primarily in the foreign language,” the court said in an opinion written by Justice Jennifer Detjen. Therefore, the dealership isn’t obligated to provide documents in the other language.

The store’s lawyer, James Burnside of the Dowling Aaron law firm in Bakersfield, Calif., said it’s the first reported appeals case in the state to address the document language issue.

Burnside also said the parents had refused his client’s offer to settle.

A lawyer for the parents did not return calls seeking comment.

You can reach Eric Freedman at freedma5@msu.edu

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