A former Massachusetts used-car dealership must pay $38,772 to a customer who bought a 1992 Toyota 4Runner that lacked a visible vehicle identification number, a state appellate court has ruled.
The dealership violated the state consumer protection law and put its customer at potential risk of criminal prosecution, a court panel said.
That law makes it a crime to sell or knowingly possess a vehicle without a visible VIN. Conviction carries a potential two-year prison term and a fine.
The dealership is appealing, its lawyer said.
The defendant, C.L.A.S. Inc., did business as City Line Auto Sales and was in Massachusetts at the time.
The dealership now operates under a different corporate name in Greenville, N.H. It is a licensed dealership that sells what the Massachusetts Appellate Division of District Courts called 'total loss salvage' vehicles: those that insurers have determined are 'uneconomical to repair' and vehicles that have been recovered after being stolen, regardless of condition, after the insurer fully paid the theft claim. All its vehicles come from insurers.
In January 1996, Gustavo Ramirez paid City Line $15,300 for the 4Runner, the court said.
He received documentation indicating that it was a theft salvage vehicle, but there was conflicting evidence on whether Ramirez was told at the time that it had no visible VIN.
When Ramirez took the vehicle to the state Registry of Motor Vehicles for inspection and registration, it was rejected because of the missing visible VIN. The inspector referred him to the state police salvage vehicle inspection station, where the 4Runner again was rejected.
The court said City Line failed to provide Ramirez with additional documentation, and neither the registry nor the state police gave him a VIN correction form. Ultimately, he 'gave up all efforts to put the car on the road, garaged it and bought a different' vehicle.
Ramirez sued City Line in Lawrence District Court, where he won a $16,636 damage award at a nonjury trial before Justice Michael Stella. That amount was doubled under the consumer protection law, and he was awarded another $5,500 in attorney fees.
Ramirez's lawyer, James Landy of Lawrence, said after the trial that Ramirez returned the 4Runner to City Line, which resold it. The proceeds are in escrow, to be applied toward the judgment.
The appellate division unanimously upheld the verdict and damages, saying, 'It is undisputed that the Toyota had no visible VIN and that the dealership knew the VIN was missing when it sold the Toyota to Ramirez.'
That constituted an unfair and deceptive trade practice, the court said, rejecting City Line's argument that it was legally authorized to sell vehicles without visible VINs.
City Line lawyer Peter Horst-mann declined to discuss details of the case but said his client is going to appeal further. 'Obviously, we think the opinion was erroneous.'
Horstmann did say City Line has never been prosecuted for selling a vehicle without a visible VIN and called the potential criminal penalties 'a legal fiction.'