Unfortunately, auto repairs are an expensive, but inevitable, part of car ownership. When you leave your car with an auto mechanic, you are entering into a contractual relationship. If you mechanic violates the terms of your agreement, they are liable for damages.
Generally speaking, when you drop your car off at a mechanic’s shop, you create a bailment relationship. In other words, the mechanic will keep your vehicle for a limited period of time—and for limited purposes. While in the shop’s possession, the mechanic must treat your car with reasonable care.
Additionally, most states have consumer protection laws concerning car repairs. Typically, an auto mechanic is liable for:
- False or missing estimates;
- Failing to disclose exactly what work was performed;
- Breach of warranty;
- Failing to reasonably perform the requested work;
- Products liability (for the sale of defective or dangerous parts);
- Performing unauthorized or unnecessary work; and
- Damage that occurs while the car is in the mechanic’s possession.
And, the mechanic may face criminal charges if he or she intentionally defrauds customers or steals their property.
When Is the Mechanic Liable for Damages Resulting from Faulty Service?
A mechanic is liable for damages caused by his or her negligence. For example, suppose your mechanic rotates your tires, but fails to properly reattach the lug nuts on one of your wheels. If this negligence results in injuries or property damage, the mechanic is liable.
However, the mechanic may have defenses, including contributory or comparative negligence and assumption of risk. For example, suppose the mechanic was unable to fully repair your vehicle. The mechanic advises you that he or she needs more time to fix your car’s issues. Instead, you decide to take the car on a road trip. If the disclosed problems cause damage to your vehicle, the mechanic may not be financially responsible.
What about the Contents of My Car?
Always contact law enforcement if items are stolen from your vehicle. Law enforcement can investigate the theft—and may help you identify the culprit and recover your property. Additionally, a police report is valuable evidence during a civil lawsuit because it documents your loss and the circumstances surrounding it.
In a civil claim, different rules may apply depending on whether or not the item was attached to your car. Many states have garage keepers liability laws that protect both your vehicle and items connected to your vehicle (such as car stereos, tires, and catalytic converters). If your car stereo (or something else that is fastened to your vehicle) is stolen, the shop is typically liable for the loss.
However, there are limits to these protections. Garage keepers liability laws typically do not cover the personal property you store in your car—such as laptops, loose change, sunglasses, and other valuables. However, depending on the circumstances, the repair shop may still be responsible. If the mechanic knew of the item’s presence in your vehicle, it may be included in the bailment relationship. Alternatively, you could assert that the loss of your personal property was an unlawful conversion.
What If My Car Is Stolen from the Repair Shop?
While it has your car, the mechanic shop must take reasonable care to protect it. If the mechanic leaves your keys in your unlocked car, he or she may be liable for the theft. However, if the shop took all reasonable steps to keep your vehicle safe, it is not responsible for your loss. (However, some garages still have insurance coverage that may help offset your losses.)
What about Disclaimers?
Many auto repair estimates include disclaimers in an attempt to limit the mechanic’s liability for lost or stolen property. Sometimes, these disclaimers are enforceable. However, an auto repair shop cannot use a disclaimer to avoid liability for its own liability or intentional torts.
Should I Contact a Lawyer?
Claims involving auto mechanics can involve a wide variety of legal issues— including bailments, garage keepers laws, negligence, and products liability. Due to complexity of these claims, it’s in your best interest to consult with an experienced consumer protection lawyer. A lawyer can ensure that you file the correct legal claims and maximize your recovery.