Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Caveat Venditor: Seller Beware

Gregory v. Poulin Auto Sales, Inc., 2010 VT 85 (mem.).

When Crawford Gregory purchased a 2001 Audi with a clean title, neither he nor the dealer knew that the car history belied its clean title and odometer certificate.  After some internet snooping, Gregory discovered the Audi was actually a salvaged and rebuilt vehicle, with an inaccurate odometer reading and nonfunctioning airbags; the car had been, through a mistake at the DMV, given a clean title before Poulin purchased it at auction.  Like any disaffected buyer, Gregory demanded a refund. Poulin suggested he track down the previous owner.  Instead, Gregory filed a suit against Poulin for violation of the Vermont Consumer Fraud Act and the Salvage Title Act.

In a twist on the old Roman customer service axiom, the trial court imposed a form of strict liability on Poulin under the Salvaged Motor Vehicle provisions of 23 V.S.A. § 2001(13).  The Supreme Court affirmed finding no language in the statute that would excuse a seller for either ignorance or mistake.  The Court relied upon its prior holding in Jensvold v. Town & Country Motors, Inc., 162 Vt. 580 (1994) and the basic meaning of the words “strict liability.”  

Unfortunately, for Gregory, the Court also reversed the trial court and ruled that § 2001 entitled Poulin to a set off in damages—meaning that Gregory must return the car or deduct its present value from any award in his favor.  On this basis and incomplete findings, the Court remanded the remainder of the case, including the consumer fraud claims, for further findings. 

No word on how the car is running these days.

Christine Mathias

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