SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Jan. 6, 2003)—In what California´s Automotive Repair Coalition (ARC) is considering a victory-albeit a temporary one-a comprehensive list of consumer complaints about repair shops in the state has been taken off the Internet.
With hopes of reducing lawsuits against the auto service shops, ARC is considering backing two pieces of possible legislation as a way to make the solution a permanent one.
The state´s regulatory agency, the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR)-a division of the Department of Consumer Affairs-had posted notices of violation (NOVs) on its Web site after consumers complained about automotive repair shops. The repair coalition said the notices were posted before shops had a chance to respond.
Since the notices were available in bulk, ARC contended attorneys could look up shops that had been cited and find potential clients for lawsuits. ARC claims attorneys were using the NOVs as evidence in cases, and shops were being drawn into settlements.
The BAR has since removed the list from the Web site. But Patti Roberts, a BAR spokeswoman, said information still is available upon request by consumers inquiring about specific shops. She said the agency continues to evaluate how the information is made available to consumers.
``Our main concern is to be an information source for consumers,´´ Ms. Roberts said.
``That´s a victory for the industry here,´´ said Marty Keller, executive director for ARC and a former chief of BAR. ``We just don´t know the extent of that victory.´´
ARC organized a meeting of state industry leaders in October to discuss issues involving the BAR. More meetings will be scheduled in the coming months, the group said.
While both sides stress the current situation is a temporary one, ARC is looking into avenues that it said would give industry leaders a stronger and more permanent voice. The possibilities include two pieces of legislation.
The first, which would have to be introduced by early February, would set up a board to govern the BAR. That would be similar to how other divisions- such as those for the medical and pharmacy industries-operate under the state´s department. Industry representatives then could sit on the board, Mr. Keller said.
``The purpose of that is to have regular and direct input into what´s going on in the regulatory process,´´ he said.
Mr. Keller said no legislators are yet on board to sponsor the legislation, and ARC has not decided whether to pursue it.
The second bill, he said, was introduced in December by state assembly member Lou Correa, a Democrat for the 69th District.
Chris Leo, Mr. Correa´s chief of staff, said the rough draft of the bill applies to unfair competition in many industries, including nail salons, real estate agencies and auto repair shops.
The legislation would be aimed at reforming ``the unfair competition law in California´´ that has been used recently to sue automotive repair groups in the state, Mr. Leo said.
The existing law consists of three parts: unfair business practices, fraud activity and unlawful acts. Under this all-inclusive law, he said, repair shops that had been posted on BAR´s Web site with a NOV could be sued because they apparently had violated some aspect of the law.
But the law is not simple to reform, Mr. Leo said. At heart is the problem of protecting honest businesses while also protecting consumers, he said. Mr. Correa´s office is planning a Jan. 10 hearing for consumer and industry representatives to share their opinions. A new version of the bill may appear before formal committees as early as February, Mr. Leo said.