Many people are intimidated by the idea of making large purchases, such as a new home or car. This is because these kinds of purchases often come with all sorts of extra fees, which can be confusing for consumers. Not everyone is aware of what constitutes a fair deal and auto dealerships sometimes take advantage of this by adding fees to a customer’s purchase without a clear explanation of what those fees are for.
Such was allegedly the case with Panhandle Automotive Inc., which does business as Bay Lincoln Hyundai Mitsubishi. Jesse Page, who represented the class of plaintiffs, filed the lawsuit against the car sales company after having bought two cars from the dealership. For each purchase, Page was allegedly charged $49 for an electronic filing fee and $489 for a delivery fee.
Of the electronic filing fee, Panhandle allegedly gave $12 to a third party that performed the electronic filing and kept the rest. Panhandle’s electronic filing fee was later raised to $147. Panhandle allegedly got to keep all of the delivery fees.
Bill Bielecky, the attorney who represented the class of plaintiffs, said that fees like this are common among car dealerships in Florida, but that they add little or no value to the consumer.
Under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Practices Act, the fees would have been legal if the documents used by Panhandle had expressly stated that the fees would be profit for the dealership. According to Bay County Commissioner George Gainer, who owns Panhandle, the failure to include the language in the documents was due to an error.
Such seemingly small omissions can have large consequences, as in this lawsuit, which resulted in thousands of dollars in settlement costs. “It’s just a no-brainer,” said Bielecky. “They didn’t have the language: they were going to lose.”
Gainer feels differently about his case, though. He said in a statement that if they had continued to fight the lawsuit in the courts, “we’d have won the thing.” This attitude is reflected in the fact that, as part of the settlement agreement, Panhandle refused to admit to having done anything illegal. Instead of an admission of guilt, Gainer maintains that the settlement was merely a way to avoid the expenses of a litigation, which could drag on in the courts for months.
Circuit Court Judge Timothy McFarland, on the other hand, felt that both sides had an equally strong case. When he approved the settlement, McFarland noted that “this factor weighs in favor of settlement because it is unclear which party will prevail at trial.” By agreeing to a settlement, the class of plaintiffs receives some relief, while Panhandle gets to save face. Continue reading