Offset Mileage Halted for Lemons

Car owners can't be charged, Petro says Saturday, March 05, 2005 Christopher JensenPlain Dealer Auto Editor

An Ohio Supreme Court decision last year about the state's "lemon law" worried some consumer advocates who feared it would cost Ohioans thousands of dollars. But that won't happen because automakers will not be allowed to charge consumers for the miles they drive lemons, Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro said Friday.

If automakers want to have arbitration programs approved by the attorney general's office, they will not be allowed to charge consumers the so-called "offset mileage," Petro said in a telephone interview.

"There is no offset. I don't see that changing," he said.

Under Ohio law, if an automaker has a state-approved arbitration board, consumers must use it before filing a suit.

The idea of arbitration is to quickly and inexpensively resolve the problem. It is not necessary to hire a lawyer; each side presents its case, and the arbitrator's decision is binding on the automaker -- but not on the consumer, who still can file a suit.

Petro's decision is good news for Ohio consumers, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

At issue was the part of Ohio's lemon law, adopted in 1987, that calls for a "full refund" for a lemon. However, starting when the law took effect, then-Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze Jr. and his successors, Lee Fisher and Betty Montgomery, gave automakers permission to charge offset mileage, reducing the refunds.

In October 2000, Montgomery ordered automakers to stop the practice after a Plain Dealer story detailed how the law was not being followed and it was costing consumers thousands of dollars.

John Murray, a Sandusky lawyer, later filed a class-action suit against the Big Three automakers on behalf of the Ohio consumers who lost money.

Last year, in a 4-3 vote, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the Big Three. Arbitration boards can charge offset mileage and consumers who are unhappy can file a suit to try for a full refund, wrote Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.

The Supreme Court gave automakers the right to shortchange Ohio consumers, Ditlow said at the time.

Petro said then that he needed time to review the decision.

On Friday, Murray said Petro's decision is "great news for anybody who has a lemon now . . . but it is unfortunate the people who had been victimized didn't get the relief they deserved."

Ditlow said one remaining concern is that some automakers may decide to end their certified programs and force consumers to go to court.