A highly litigious society and price pressures that demand good customer service are two factors that don't mix well for independent tire dealers.
The first instinct of some dealers to a customer complaint may be to accept the burden of making it right. But that could turn into a legal disaster, said Marvin Bozarth, a consultant for the Tire Industry Association (TIA) and an expert witness for the tire industry.
``With the news that's going on (from the Firestone recall), every tire that fails has the potential to generate a lawsuit,'' Mr. Bozarth told Tire Business.
But until a lawsuit actually is filed, the issue is cloudy.
``By the same token, in that kind of situation, it's probably not just a legal matter but a customer relations matter, and that's something that I can't answer,'' said Basil J. Musnuff, an attorney at the Akron law firm Roetzel & Andress. ``That's for the businessman to determine how far he wants to go to please a customer, to see that that customer comes back.''
For dealers facing product or service liability lawsuits, experts said dealers should be mindful of several do's and don'ts.
The first and most important advice is to immediately contact both an attorney and the insurance company, Mr. Musnuff said. Their advice and instructions should dictate the rest of a dealer's actions in the legal matter.
Equally important, dealers should be careful not to say anything about the company or its work-let alone admit any wrongdoing-to anyone, including opposing attorneys, the customer and news media.
``Any statements that you make can be repeated as evidence,'' Mr. Musnuff said.
Many times, the tire or service in question didn't even come from the first dealership accused, Mr. Bozarth said. Dealers should just refer everything to their attorneys and insurance company.
``Just be really cool,'' Mr. Bozarth said, adding an immediate offer to settle also is a no-no.
Mr. Musnuff said contacting the insurance company is important to make sure the dealer's policy covers the threatened lawsuit. Some policies also have timely notice provisions that could affect coverage if the dealer waits too long.
Some dealers may hesitate notifying the insurance company until a lawsuit actually is filed because more filings may threaten already skyrocketing rates, Mr. Bozarth said. That issue also is up to the dealer, as long as he or she realizes minor customer complaints about one item-such as a bad battery-quickly can turn into more. ``All of a sudden it's not just the battery,'' he said.
However a dealer decides to handle that situation, Mr. Bozarth advised against making blanket commitments to fix everything plaguing a customer's vehicle. For example, a dealer can offer to fix something just to get the motorist moving again but also assert that any other problems will have to go through the insurance companies.
``You may want to try to remedy the problem to satisfy the customer without admitting fault,'' Mr. Musnuff said.
While the dealer stays tight-lipped about the issue, he or she also should work to retain as much evidence as possible, Mr. Musnuff advised. This includes the tire or wheel, tread parts, invoices or other documentation.
``You want to make sure that that is retained securely. You may even want to turn it over to your lawyer because the last thing you want to do is (destroy) the evidence,'' he said, adding destroying or tampering with evidence may affect a dealer's liability or at least create assumptions about it.
Since this documentation can be vital in a lawsuit, Mr. Musnuff suggested dealers make a habit of keeping very detailed records. For example, note on a customer's record if a technician advised changing bald tires but the customer refused. If that customer comes back with vehicle damage after a blown tire, the dealer has evidence the technicians did their job.
Don Novel, manager of a Goodyear company-owned store in Columbus, Ohio, said his staff notes on each invoice how much air pressure and lug nut torque his technicians use for a tire and wheel. That way, customers can't say they left the store with a dangerous vehicle.
An important aspect of retaining evidence also is informing employees about a looming lawsuit so they can remember as much as possible about a particular incident.
``There are good reasons to bring it to people's attention sooner rather than later, the main reason being that memories fade over time,'' Mr. Musnuff said.
When dealers tell their employees about the lawsuit, instructions must be clear.
``Your employees should be instructed really not to talk to anybody about the case or the matter unless your lawyer instructs them to,'' he said. ``They really shouldn't talk among themselves.''
Mr. Bozarth said dealers-and their attorneys-should think carefully before going to inspect the problem tire before trial. If dealers do decide to do this, they should inspect-but not alter or touch-the tire with the plaintiff's attorneys present. Dealers also should be careful to make notes of their observations but not offer any conclusions or beliefs.
``You're just somebody dumb gathering facts,'' he said.