Say Hello to Your Attorney General

I’m one of those people who are challenged by technology. Consequently, at our law firm, we hire folks around our office to assist with computers, PDAs, the Internet, our websites, smart phones, dumb phones, social messaging and other modern-day mysteries. You probably have such people at your dealership, too. They’re easy to recognize—they’re on the short side because they tend to be 12 or 13 years old.

I thought of these munchkin techies the other day when my friend Kat Messenger of Carolina Dealer Training, LLC, shared with me a news story about an enforcement action against a Florida dealership dealing with, among other things, the dealership’s alleged practice of posting false reviews of the dealership on the Internet. The news story got my attention, and my curiosity sent me to the website of the Attorney General of Florida.

A news release on the site announced that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office has sued a Jacksonville used car dealership for alleged violations of Florida’s consumer protection law, including the posting of the allegedly false reviews on the Internet. Saying that nearly 80 consumers had filed complaints with her office, the AG accused the defendants, Beach Boulevard Automotive, Inc., Beach Boulevard Auto Finance, Inc., John King, Sr., and Barbara King, of unfair and deceptive business practices. The lawsuit seeks restitution for harmed consumers, civil penalties of up to $15,000 per violation, attorneys’ fees and costs, and injunctive relief.

The AG’s news release claimed that the dealership posted those false reviews and that those reviews and a number of other practices were violations of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. My immediate reaction to the false-reviews allegation was that activity of that sort – posting those false reviews – might be a 13-year-old kid’s idea of a really cool sort of mischief. (Does anyone say “cool” anymore?)

In addition to the Internet claim, the AG’s charges included: installing GPS devices on customers’ cars without their knowledge; requiring certain consumers to purchase credit life insurance, credit disability insurance and GAP insurance as a condition of sale; adding to the price of the car a pre-printed, flat charge entitled “Pre-Delivery Inspection” using the pre-printed Used Vehicle Bill of Sale without disclosing the nature and purpose of the fee and without providing required disclosures; keeping consumers’ deposits without adequate disclosure; engaging in the business of selling motor vehicle retail installment contracts without a license through the Office of Financial Regulation; and wrongfully, unfairly and unconscionably repossessing consumers’ vehicles.

This story came along just when I was discussing with Dave Robertson, the executive director of the Association of Finance and Insurance Professionals, the topic of state and federal unfair and deceptive acts and practices, or UDAP laws. Dave asked me for examples of acts by a dealer that an AG might claim were “unfair” or “deceptive.” The laundry list above provides a pretty good sampling of the sorts of dealer conduct that would, at least to this AG, support a UDAP claim.

According to a local TV station, King called the lawsuit “frivolous.” He might learn otherwise. Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act is typical of UDAP laws. Most states have a form of UDAP law, and such laws are among the favorite tools employed by AGs and plaintiffs’ lawyers against dealers. The laws typically use very general terms and are broadly written. If the AG alleges that certain conduct runs afoul of a UDAP law, and the jury agrees, Mr. King might find that the allegedly bad conduct is, in fact, against the law. But don’t forget; we’ve only heard one side of this story. The AG still has to prove her allegations in court.

The “false reviews” claim is likely to be framed by the AG as a type of false advertising claim. That might not be the end of the matter, though. Perhaps an enterprising plaintiffs’ lawyer might try to parlay the AG’s action into a private UDAP lawsuit for damages, or try to turn those allegedly false reviews into a private lawsuit claim based on fraud.

So if those giggles you hear from the back room of your shop are those 13-year-old kids that you hired to work on your website, you might want to wander back there and take a look at what they are up to.

Vol. 8, Issue 12