Can a Repair Shop Keep An Unsafe Car

Published on October 4, 2012 under Humble Mechanic

Today we are going to talk about a bit of a sensitive topic.

Should a repair shop be able to keep your car if it is unsafe?

Let me set the stage. A customer brings their car into the shop. The mechanic takes it on a short test drive, and finds the brakes barely work. After inspecting the car, the mechanic finds that the brakes are leaking fluid. This prevents the brakes from engaging. It is only a matter of a few miles before the car will loose all braking.

As you might guess, this is a very serious situation. I don’t think that I need to go into detail about how not having brakes is a bad thing. Not only does it endanger the driver, but all the other drivers on the road. Now the words that scare everyone come out of the customer’s mouth “I am not going to fix the car”.

Okay, we have established the fact the car is 100% unsafe. We also know that the customer is not fixing the car. What happens next?

The Shop Attempts to Keep The Car
What were to happen if a service station attempted to keep a car. I don’t think it would take very long for the situation to escalate. I am sure that law enforcement would get involved. Laws do very from state to state, but I could not find any state that said a service shop could keep a customer from there car. In fact I seemed to find the opposite. Shops can not get in the way of a customer taking their property. It is really that simple.

The Customer Takes The Unsafe Car
This is a very serious situation. Best case the customer gets the car home and parks it. Giving them time to get the car repaired. Worst case, the customer gets into an accident. You can fill in the blank on how bad that could be.

From a service department prospective, this is a HUGE liability. If that customer were to get into an accident, the blame would be immediately be focused on the service department. It would go something like,

I was just at the service place. They didn’t tell me that it was unsafe. I don’t know anything about cars. I trusted them to keep me safe.

The customer has a point. They do trust the service department to keep them safe. However, the customer the one that makes the choice to repair or not to repair.

In a perfect world, no cars would ever break. If they did break, everyone would have the time and money to fix them. So how does a shop handle a situation like this? If after informing a customer of the severity of the situation, they decline the repair. The shop will add a special note to the customers repair order stating the issue and the car in “UNSAFE”. Some refer to this as “red tagging”. The customer will then have to sign saying they understand.

What do you folks think? Should a shop be able to keep an unsafe car from leaving the lot? Or would shops use that as a “scare tactic” to strong arm customers in to paying for repairs? Post up your thoughts in the comments below. This is one that a strong case can be made on BOTH sides.

Don’t forget the enter the contest to win a Snap-On magnetic tray. All the details are listed at the bottom of yesterday’s Shop Shots post. I will pick a winner on Friday 10/05/12 in the evening.

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  1. Uwe

    No, a shop should not be able to keep it. However, if I owned a repair shop, I would have some sort of boiler-plate document in my PC that states:

    “This car is unsafe to drive because [whatever] and by taking the car from our facility without having it repaired, you acknowledge this and agree to hold us harmless…”

    The customer would have to sign this before I’d release the car to him.

      1. Charles

        That is a situation that no one ever wants to be put in. If we are talking about regular passenger cars, I think most places will need to let the customer leave. If we are talking about professional vehicles, long haul trucks, cabs, and the like, I think they would be held for repairs. Or the company that owns the vehicle would be contacted.

        There is always the option of alerting the police. If a car is unsafe, do you think alerting the authorities would be a wrong move? To me that is a really tough choice. It is one I hope I never have to make.

  2. Jeremy (in pgh)

    This day in age, I’d add that the shop’s person in charge of releasing the car or service manager if it’s a bigger place, just not a dealership, should also get the person on video acknowledging that the car is extremely unsafe, or request that they call their preferred towing company to remove the car from their property.

    I had an oil pan damaged by another shop years ago, and when at the dealer for inspection, they noticed it and would not let me take my car. the pan’s plug threads were stripped. it held oil, had done so just fine for over 3 months since it had happened, only had not been noticed because it did not leak oil enough to notice where I was parking daily and I wasn’t needing to add from above. matter of fact, the plug would NOT come out. the place that did the damage wanted to fix it but the dealer wouldn’t let me take my car. I get why, but it had been like that for 3 months and a 5 mile drive to the place to have it taken care of on their dime would have been much better. in that case, I think the dealer was being extra hard and wanted my money. hell, given the alternative to allow me to tow it there would have even been better. I’ll pay a $75 tow to not spend $500 at a dealer that someone else will make right for free!

    on the liability side of things, if I was the mechanic/shop, I’d want more than some initials backing me up if I let someone drive away with something as dangerous as the original post’s scenario. it’s not like you want to turn a customer in for something, but I’d almost want to be able to report it to the authorities to ensure that if they left, they did take care of it asap, not 20, 50, 100+ miles later.

      1. Jeremy (in pgh)

        yeah. the place that did the damage stripped the threads of the pan. we all know how often that happens on these cars. because they could not back it out, OR secure it, they wouldn’t let it leave. I wish I would have thought to tow it to the other shop back then, but I was still a little naive and looking back I think I was bullied by the dealership.

        things is, this was not one of those “I’m a danger to me and everyone else on the road” kinds of things. it was a “if my plug happened to magically fall out—which the shop couldn’t manage to make happen WITH tools—then I’d drop a bunch of oil, be the exxon valdez of whatever puddle I happened to pass over and kill all the micro-wildlife in said puddle, and risk burning up my engine in the rest of that 5mi trip” kind of thing. just ended up costing $500 when it could have been free, or even the $75 tow which my insurance would have paid back anyway.

  3. Jason London

    should the shop keep the car? yes,no,kinda,probably. i like this gray area questions. i think technically yes, the repair shop should keep the car. however we both know that will not happen. i think 40 years ago the shop could have done it. now we have laws, csi and management that folds like a cheap suit. add that to customers that dont care for their vehicle or cant afford the repair this will happen.
    the best is if the said vehicle has a car seat in the back.
    bottom line i think this is just a lost situation. no way of winning. repair shops cant keep the car and people will not voluntarily leave the car. all i would say is “what roads do you travel? i dont want to be on the same road as this vehicle”

  4. Glenn

    Interesting discussion. No way should the shop think of keeping the car. Covering your rear with a form letter is unfortunately the best solution. Walk through with a witness(even though they work in the same shop as you) while you explain the situation to them is also probably a good idea.

    Car I drove wasn’t “unsafe”, but had a slow leaker in a tire. Unfixable because of where the nail was. Got a lesson about all wheel drive cars and tires that day, but didn’t believe the tire place (thought they were trying to con me actually). Turns out they weren’t. They had me sign a form acknowledging I refused to have the tire fixed, and I didn’t mind.

  5. Mathew Maher

    That is a sensitive topic indeed, and one that I’m sure occurs more often than one would realize. One question that comes to mind is “Would a repair shop really want to hold on to the car?” – assume that the shop could, and the owner left it. What would happen to the car after 2-, 4-, or 6-months later? Is it ‘abandoned’?

    A few solutions have crossed between me and my mom as we talked about this earlier, and while legal issues always came up, we collaborated on a few ideas.

    Finance: Let’s say the repair job is $1,500, the shop can finance the repair job for the customer, allowing them to make weekly or monthly payments on the repair. In the meantime, the shop can put a lein on the car in the amount of the repair until it is paid in full. In which, the shop drops the lein, and the car is safe to drive.
    Paperwork & Tow: The customer signs paperwork explaining the safety of the car is compromised and the customer admits to denying work, relieving the shop of liability (similar to the comment above by Uwe). The shop can then have a tow-truck drive the customer and car to the customers home and relinquish responsibility – similar to how a bar tender can call a taxi when someone has too much to drink and can’t drive home

    Again, I’m sure there are lots of legal issue with these suggestions, but I think that could be a start?

  6. Larry

    Absoutly love this topic!!! I agree since a shop cannot legally keep a vehicle, the cust should sign and have their car towed off of the property. If the cust wants to take their car to a local shop instead if having it fixed atbour dealership go ahead . But the shop it going to should make arrangements to have it towed. If its a safty issue and potently able to cause an accident then yes i believe a shop or dealership should be able to keep the vehicle unless the customer signs a waiver and has it towed out. Dont care if they “drove” it in. Just shows how nieve some people are. Start an auto reapir savings just for the safty related issues. Windows dont work who cares but the owner of the vehicle. But it the brakes fail who cares everyone but the dealership or independant shop get the dark cloud.

    1. marty

      This is in some ways similar to a problem that occurs surprisingly often in hospital emergency rooms when patients don’t agree with physicians about how severe or life threatening a problem may be. In that setting, there is standard legal boilerplate (varies somewhat from institution to institution) which care providers ask patients to sign if they wish to leave against medical advice (“AMA”). When patients refuse to sign, the staff carefully documents AT THAT TIME what was explained to the patient. That written documentation becomes part of the medical record for that visit. None of this, of course, prevents lawsuits in the case of catastrophic outcomes. However, properly recorded information makes it significantly more difficult for the unfortunate departee to take an institution to the cleaners for what is most frequently extremely unwise behavior on their own part.

  7. Joe

    This is a very touchy subject. Every state is different. But I had an acquaintance of mine who owned a shop let a car leave and had the owner sign something that said that the car was unsafe and that they understood it should not be driven. The car left and got in an accident down the road and the driver ended up killing someone.

    The shop ended up getting sued, going to court and loosing the case. The judges point was that “Well you knew it was unsafe and the owner knew it was unsafe….well what about the rest of the people on the road, they did not know it was unsafe.”

    Do not let a car leave your shop that is really unsafe, call the police and they will come down and take the plates off the vehicle and have it towed if need be.

    If you must, at your expense have the car towed down the street to a public parking lot. This way it left your business on a flat bed the way it should be.

    1. Jeremy (in pgh)

      perfect example of the worst-case scenario, joe. this has me wondering, perhaps it would be a good humble mechanic article to research. what states have what laws in place to handle these situations? if a person CAN lose a court case over it, then there needs to be some line in the sand that allows them to cover their own butts without being the bad guy and risk a terrible customer service situation by having to call the cops.

      imagine, what if this was your friendly mechanic who’d been doing your work, your family’s work, your friends’ work, etc., for YEARS. there’d likely be a handshake, and a “I’ll take care of it in the morning.” … and then boom, accident, both with major liability issues, when the shop might not have known what rights or obligations they had. I’m sure state inspection stations have some sort of guidelines, but I’ve never heard of anyone (apart from myself above) where their car was held and refused to be returned. what rights do you have as a shop to keep it? and what rights as the car owner to I have to demand that my car be given back?

  8. Charles

    @Joe, That is awful! That really is the worst case scenario.

    It does not really surprise me that the shop got sued and lots. It does not matter how perfect the paperwork is done. The courts are always on the side of the consumer.

    I do think this subject needs more attention. I’ll add it to the list. I am really glad that it does not come up very often.

  9. john kennedy

    joe where could I get a look at this court transcript

    I am a mechanic and refused to assemble a customers car and lost my job would like to get the documentation and I think it should be sign the waiver and get unsafe cars towed atleast off of shop property thanks

  10. jake

    I am a service manager at a repair shop. I belive in no pressure sales and honesty. And to do whats right buy my customers. A customer brings u there vehicle and tell u they know theres a problem. They know theres a problem. And in most cases it would probably be some thing wrong with there brakes that would constatute being un safe. Or somthing with suspinsion. It should be a law if it could be proven or to be able to have law enforcement be able to prevent a customer from leaving in an Un safe vehicle. Case in point customer come in states they are haven brake problems. And of course they problem is greatly understated because it’s thought to eas the problem lol.( It happens all the time oh it just started to grind and the rotor is almost gone.) So any ways do a full check up on car already knowing the car is in bad shape. Tech goes to take test drive and won’t even test drive it because stepping on pedal does nothing. Ie(bad booster) customers declined repairs fine said he wanted second opinion fine. Put car back together told customer he should get a tow truck because car u safe ( true comment well they work good enough he had been driven it like that for months he just pulled up on emergency brake! )(why we couldn’t get drums off) now he got mad and said I’m not paying for a tow truck so I documented my R O and signed the car over to him. Did not try to strong arm him just simply told him that he has no regard for any one but him self on the road my wife my daughter any of my family drive on these roads. He is a danger on the road. But we the professionals have no right to tell a customer that. We should have that right. Or call for the local sheriff to do so. I don’t care were he fixes he’s car just get it fixed. But some times people just think there the only one on the road and it’s not there responsibility to care. Sorry I went off there. Thanks for listening.

  11. ashley

    OMG!! this happened to me years ago. I was 19 years old and taking my car to the shop by myself for the first time. I thought the car was fine, I was just bringing it in for a tune up and to have the brakes changed when two hours later, they came out and told me that there were like ten different things wrong with my car and that they couldn’t release the car to me until it was repaired. Being the gullable, naive young teenage girl that I was back then, I actually believed them. I had to call my parents to come out and help me pay for the repairs. In total it cost over $1000. A week later I brought my car to my grandfather who is a certified mechanic himself. He told me that my car was fine, that it didn’t need all those repairs because he had looked the car over himself when my parents got it for me only three months earlier. He told me it was a scam that shops pull, especially when dealing with young, inexperienced drivers. They pull out all these “bad parts” that really aren’t bad at all and then they tell you that they legally can’t release the car to you until you get it repaired. I have to say, since that day, I do all of my own minor repairs, learning what I need to do by reading manuals and watching youtube videos. If I can’t get it done myself, I have a guy friend look at it for me before I take it in to any shop. Lesson learned.

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