A proposal that either protects consumers or unscrupulous used car dealers – depending on who is describing it – won passage from a Senate committee on Tuesday after debate over an issue that has confounded lawmakers for years, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.
The bill (SB 292) passed 7-4 along party lines with Republicans in favor in the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee despite concerns from some GOP members who said they may drop their support without some changes.
The proposal would change the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act to require consumers to give auto dealers 30 days to correct problems with a car before going to court. Bill sponsor Sen. Garrett Richter said the bill would allow dealers to address issues without further overburdening the legal system.
Critics, including plaintiff attorneys and consumer advocates, say the bill would erect a hurdle for customers who think they got a bum deal.
The bill would require consumers to send a demand letter to the dealer informing them of the problem and listing how much it may cost to fix it. If they were to seek legal advice, the bill would cap payments to $500. After 30 days, the consumer would be allowed to file a civil lawsuit or go to small claims court.
“This is a straightforward attempt to resolve auto dealership consumer issues in an expedited fashion,” Richter said.
Opponents of the measure include the Florida Justice Association and the Florida Consumer Action Network. They said the bill erodes consumer protections by delaying a final resolution and potentially limiting reimbursements for legitimate repairs.
“There is no way a consumer can go through the statute and get it right,” said Taras Rudnitsky, an Orlando attorney who represents disgruntled customers. “It is incomprehensible to an average consumer. “
The bill would not affect complaints brought through Florida’s Lemon Law or manufacturer warranties. Instead, it appears aimed primarily at used car dealerships.
Richter said that after the 30 days is over, customers would be able to go to court like they always have been able to do.
Committee chairwoman Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, voted in favor of the bill, but not until warning Richter and other bill backers that her support might be short lived if major changes aren’t forthcoming.
“This(bill) puts up too many roadblocks for consumers,” Detert said. “I see the overall point and I think there is way to get there, but it requires a lot more work.”
The bill goes now to the Senate Judiciary Committee.