Auto-repair dealers are required by state law to give their customers a written estimate of the work to be done on their cars. And a Santa Cruz auto mechanic learned an expensive legal lesson recently when a California court ruled that his customer did not have to pay a $5,000 bill after the mechanic forgot to provide a written estimate.
The state law covering auto repair is very specific. It says repair dealers must give a written estimated price for labor and parts. In addition, no work may begin and no charges can accrue until the customer has authorized the work to be done. The authorization itself does not have to be in writing, but the estimate must be in writing. (You can read the law in Section 9884.9 of the state Business and Professions Code.)
The law also covers unexpected expenses. If the work will cost more than the original written estimate, the repair dealer is required by law to contact the customer and obtain consent before proceeding with the work. The law even says the mechanic must make a notation on the work order of the date, time, telephone number and name of the person authorizing the additional parts and/or labor. The same notation must be made on the invoice, or else the customer must sign, approving the added cost after the repairs are completed.
Although the law says a written estimate is required, it does not explicitly say what should happen if one is not provided. But the courts have filled in the blanks.
In a Court of Appeal decision in Santa Cruz County last month, the owners of a 1973 Citroen Maserati won a lawsuit they filed against a repair shop, which had commenced a sale of their car to cover the cost of repairs, which they refused to pay.
Although the car owners had discussed the proposed repairs and orally agreed to the estimated cost, the court found that the auto mechanic had made an irreversible error. He never provided "a written estimate of the cost of intended repairs, despite being generally familiar with the law which required it," the court said. And so he couldn't compel the customers to pay.
Auto-repair shops will probably soon be reminded by their trade associations of the significance of written estimates and the impact of this recent case. And customers who have a serious complaint with their mechanic might check to make sure that they received a written estimate. Because if you didn't, you'll be in a very good bargaining position. But be sure to keep your copy of the work order, with the missing estimate, as your proof.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.