Revenge of the burned

Bought a lemon? CAMVAP's got you covered (maybe)

When Patricia Wong’s brand-new 1996 car turned out to be a dud, she expected sympathy and a settlement from the manufacturer. The Vancouver real estate agent works hard to please her clients and thought her $33,000 purchase carried clout.

Her litany of problems included a brake job within two months of purchase, two batteries within nine months, a transmission repair within 16 months, as well as power-steering, antilock brake and air-conditioning repairs, all within two years.

“My car was in the shop every two months,” recalls Wong. She asked for a buyback. The automaker said it had honoured the warranty. So Wong took her dispute to the streets, forming a lemon owners group in B.C. and organizing parades of disgruntled owners. Her plight caught the attention of the media and in February 1998 she and the manufacturer reached an agreement-on the condition that she keep the details confidential.

Wong’s case is an extreme example of the lengths to which consumers can go when a dream car turns into a nightmare. Unlike the U.S., Canada doesn’t have lemon laws. Consumers with clunkers have few options.

One route is the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (CAMVAP), which bills itself as fast, friendly, fair and free. Launched and funded by a coalition of vehicle manufacturers in 1994, CAMVAP’s board includes representatives from the auto industry, consumer groups and provincial governments. Currently, 1995 to 1999 vehicles may be eligible for the plan.

“CAMVAP is very simple,” says the plan’s general manager, Stephen Moody. “If you think your vehicle has a manufacturing defect or the manufacturer is not implementing its warranty properly, you’re likely eligible for arbitration.”

There are notable exceptions. Quebec residents aren’t eligible, nor are BMW owners. The plan excludes vehicles used primarily for business. CAMVAP only covers new or used vehicles purchased or leased in Canada. Disputes must relate to a manufacturing defect, not a dealer misdeed. If a dealer has botched a repair or lied about a vehicle during a sale, CAMVAP can’t help.

Moody says most CAMVAP cases are settled within 70 days and last year 70 percent of award cases favoured consumers. In 1997, CAMVAP arbitrated 329 cases. Another 62 cases were resolved by consent. Buybacks were awarded in 49 cases and three vehicles were replaced.

CAMVAP isn’t without its detractors. The Automobile Protection Association (APA) notes the most common award favouring consumers (31 percent of cases according to CAMVAP) is simply another repair. The APA also criticizes CAMVAP’s nondisclosure policy that prevents owners from discussing the outcome of a case. As well, CAMVAP participants waive the right to court action.

If CAMVAP isn’t flawless, neither are other options. Even small claims court cases can be daunting, time-consuming and costly. Like Wong, you can try to pressure an automaker through public protests or writing the media. But newspapers and TV stations get inundated with beefs and may not take up your cause.

While there’s no foolproof way to get satisfaction, there’s a sure method for disappointment: do nothing.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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