Military wife leads effort to strengthen state's [Oklahoma's] 'lemon law'

Gallant charge
Military wife leads effort to strengthen state's 'lemon law'
Enid News & Eagle (Oklahoma) 3/7/2005
Wire and Staff reports

 

 

OKLAHOMA CITY With a soft-spoken manner and diminutive 3-year-old daughter on her hip, Angie Gallant is an unlikely advocate as she walks the halls of the state Capitol corralling lawmakers in a quest for reform.

But Gallant's message is beginning to resonate as she builds legislative support for strengthening Oklahoma's 'lemon law', which lists car- and truck-buyers rights when their vehicle won't start, stop or run like it should.

 

 

Gallant has firsthand experience with Oklahoma's lemon law. She believes she was victimized by it when her brand new Chevrolet Malibu started having problems just three weeks after she bought it last year ” a year in which her husband, Army Reserve Capt. Jeff Gallant, was mobilized and away from home.

 

 

"When you're a woman and you've got a small child and you go to the dealership, it's horrible,"said Gallant, 34. 'It's pretty intimidating. I was in tears.'

 

 

She fought with General Motors for 10 months to get the defective car replaced. The company eventually bought the car back but charged a $1,530 user fee for the miles she had put on it.

 

 

'People aren't aware of how bad our law is. The consumer doesn't really have any power to negotiate with a large manufacturer,' she said.

 

 

Since then, Gallant and her young daughter, Genevieve, have made frequent visits to the Capitol to encourage lawmakers to increase consumer protections.

 

 

'It's not a level playing field. It's David versus Goliath and time is on the side of the manufacturer,' said Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, author of the lemon law bill.

 

 

Both Enid representatives Curt Roggow and Mike Jackson are aware of Duncan and his bill, but neither have read it carefully enough to form an opinion yet.

 

 

I do know it's getting some exposure. I know an attempt was made to change the lemon law a year or two ago and GM (General Motors) lobbied against it and defeated it, Roggow said.

 

 

It's interesting to me that there has been a second attempt to improve the lemon law in the past two years by consumers. I am curious about that and it could mean there is something wrong with the lemon law, the Enid Republican said.

 

 

Roggow said the bill is a matter of exposing problems and bringing them to the floor to see what needs to be done.

 

 

'I'm curious about why a consumer has attempted to change the law and why GM is trying to halt it,' he said.

 

 

Jackson, also a Republican, said Toyota does not oppose the law change, although GM does. He is still undecided on some specifics of the law but he thinks Rex Duncan is trying to do something noble like protecting consumers.

 

 

'I want to look at it and weight it against how it will affect business in Enid and in Oklahoma,' he said.

 

 

Jackson expects the bill to come up next week.

 

 

The bill only affects new cars and not used cars, he said.

 

 

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, ranked Oklahoma 42nd in the nation in 2002 in the level of protection the lemon law gives consumers.

 

 

In a letter to Attorney General Drew Edmondson, the Washington, D.C.-based group said the biggest weaknesses were no provisions for companies to replace cars with defects that could injure of kill after a single unsuccessful repair attempt and for attorneys fees for consumers who sue a manufacturer.

 

 

Edmondson, the Center for Auto Safety and consumer groups have endorsed the measure.

 

 

Spokesmen for GM and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said they are sympathetic but believe the state's lemon law provides adequate protection to consumers unlucky enough to purchase a defective vehicle.

 

 

'The lemon law has been on the books for at least 15 years. We think we've had good success,' said Bud McMullen, a governmental relations specialist for GM in Austin, Texas.

 

 

GM sold 66,000 cars and trucks in Oklahoma last year and repurchased 74 defective vehicles, McMullen said.

 

 

'Occasionally we do have a problem car,' he said. 'All of the manufacturers have lemons. There are more than 16,000 parts on a car. That's why we have warranties.'

 

 

'A car has more computers in it that the spaceship John Glenn went up in,' said Ken Nance, an Oklahoma City attorney and spokesman for the automakers alliance. 'Everybody's had a new car that has some problems. And ones that can't get fixed has to be frustrating to the purchaser.'

 

 

The Gallants purchased the Malibu in January 2004 shortly before Jeff Gallant was called to active duty, leaving his family at their home in Broken Arrow.

 

 

'Less than three weeks later, it started not starting,' Mrs. Gallant said.

 

 

Over the next six weeks, she repeatedly took the car to the dealer where it underwent extensive repairs, including a new starter relay and other components.

 

 

'They tried really hard to fix it. But they could never fix it,' she said. 'It would intermittently not start.'

 

 

In March, Gallant asked GM for a new car of the same make and model. 'But one that works,' she said. 'They said no.'

 

 

She made the same request the next month. 'And they said no,' she said. 'They said we're closing your file. They didn't give any explanation of why.'

 

 

In May, the Gallants received a letter from GM suggesting the couple enroll in a Better Business Bureau dispute mediation program. The company finally agreed to replace the car but insisted on charging a $1,530 usage fee.

 

 

'I told them I did not have that money,' she said. She eventually negotiated the fee down to $750, but months of delays and difficulty finding a replacement car pushed the fee back to the original amount.

 

 

'They have the discretion to not charge me, a soldier's wife who's struggling,'she said.

 

 

The user fee was assessed in spite of the families ties to GM. Jeff Gallant, an attorney, had worked for a law firm that represented GM. Many of his relatives, including his father, are retired GM factory workers.

 

 

McMullen defended GM's handling of the case.

 

 

'We feel we treated her fairly under the provisions of the existing law,' he said. 'We feel we bent over backwards for her.'

 

 

The law allows manufacturers to assess a reasonable allowance for use of a defective vehicle. But Gallant said the law provides no formula for establishing reasonable usage like other states.

 

 

Among other things, the reform bill gives consumers the option of taking a full refund or a replacement vehicle of a similar type when defects occur. Current law allows the manufacturer to mandate those terms to the consumer.

 

 

It also caps user fees at 10 cents a mile or 10 percent of the value of the vehicle, whichever is less.

 

 

McMullen said the cap would be a windfall to consumers and unfair to automakers. The Internal Revenue Service allows mileage of up to 37 cents a mile. The user fee GM assessed Gallant amounted to about 17 cents a mile, he said.

 

 

'Is there a great deal of sympathy for this lady? Yeh,' Nance said. 'We also need to be fair to the business side.'