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It was a shiny, black 1992 Corvette ZR-1. Only 20,000 miles on the clock, a glass top, leather interior, fully loaded. A rare find for a 'Vette enthusiast, and quite intoxicating to Phoenix resident Jeff Nickels.
"I immediately fell in love with it," Nickels says. "It was the ultimate purchase."
Nickels paid CNV Corvette, a Tempe dealership, $34,995 for the car. He joined ZR-1 and Corvette clubs, talked up his new 'Vette with fellow collectors and washed--hand washed--his car every week.
That was September 1997. About a year later, his vehicle had developed constant and mysterious engine trouble. Nickels became so concerned he hauled it to a ZR-1 expert in Indio, California, and waited four long weeks for a diagnosis. When it came, Nickels was devastated.
The engine block needed to be replaced at a cost of $20,000.
Worse: His extended-warranty holder refused to cover the repairs because Nickels' car is a "salvage"--a former wreck, a total, that had been restored.
"That's impossible," he recalls saying to the mechanic. "I have an original Arizona title that says it's not a salvage."
Soon enough, Nickels figured it out.
In 1997, a ZR-1 with a registration title marked "salvage" was sold to CNV at a Kansas City auto auction. Over the next four months, the title was transferred to California, Montana, and, finally, Arizona. Somewhere along the line, the registration lost the required "salvage" stigma. In other words, Nickels alleges, CNV Corvette laundered the title.
Attorneys for the dealership deny all charges, noting that Nickels has already received a $25,000 settlement from the warranty company and that General Motors has revoked the original "salvage" designation. Nickels says the settlement doesn't let the dealer off the hook for selling him a salvaged car to begin with.
Since last October, lawyers for Nickels and the dealership have faxed offers and threats back and forth. Nickels filed a lawsuit in January seeking more than $1 million in damages.
But last month, Nickels made an unusual move. The Intel employee created a Web site--www.angelfire.com/az/cnvcorvetteripoff--blasting the dealership for selling him a lemon.
Now the dealership is countersuing Nickels for libel and defamation, and is attempting to shut down his site.
"All he did [on the site] was describe what's going on in the action," says Nickels' lawyer, Michael Shaw. "None of it is libelous, because he's just stating the facts."
At a hearing last Friday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Colin Campbell heard arguments for an emergency injunction to shut down Nickels' Web site. Campbell, a sly, soft-spoken Southerner straight out of a John Grisham novel, listened to the injunction request, then addressed CNV's lawyers: "Do you think there's any First Amendment issues involved here?" he asked.
CNV's Hammerman & Hultgren counselor, Vincent Creta, replied that the First Amendment doesn't apply--Nickels is defaming their client, actively discouraging customers from buying his client's vehicles.
"Do you have an adequate remedy of law?" Campbell asked.
Creta admitted they did not. "But we know that 10,000 people have visited [Nickels'] site," Creta said. In fact, one potential customer told CNV that he wouldn't consider buying a car from the dealership after viewing Nickels' page. Therefore, Creta said, the Web site is doing incalculable damage.
Campbell: "Do you know how many cars CNV sells per month?"
Creta did not.
"Because if they're selling the same amount every month," Campbell continued, "if this hasn't made a blip in their sales, it could hardly be said the site is hurting them. . . . Also, Web sites are worldwide. Nine [thousand] of the 10,000 visitors to his site could be from Africa."
Creta stammered a bit at that, then enthusiastically noted that the judge's point was absolutely correct--nobody knows where these 10,000 visitors live. They might be in Africa. They might be in Tempe.
Actually, when confronted about the suspiciously high number of hits clocked on his one-month-old Web site, Nickels admitted to New Times that he doctored the site's "counter"--rolled forward the odometer, if you will, to freak out CNV.
"It also says on the site, 'CNV ripped me off,'" continued Creta. "And says, 'CNV sells salvaged vehicles.' . . . [Nickels] can also update the Web site at any time. What if he doesn't like how this is all going? He can go to his Web site page and write, 'CNV ripped me off again.'"
Campbell smiled. "I think, under the First Amendment, that I'd be in real trouble if I ruled against future speech," he said.
The judge refused to issue an injunction against Nickels' site.
Though Nickels' war is far from over, Campbell's initial ruling is good news--both for him, and for fellow consumer Web vigilante James Fleckenstein, a former police officer who says his site bashing Projector Superstore in Scottsdale-- http://www.nettaxi.com/citizens/prez/ --has been threatened with legal action.
For his part, Fleckenstein has no interest in pursuing legal action.
"I'm not going to sue anybody in Arizona; that would be ridiculous," says Fleckenstein, a California resident. "I just want people to think twice before using that store."
Unlike Nickels' page, which tersely presents the documented history of his purchase, Fleckenstein's site is a lengthy, descriptive tale of unknowingly buying a refurbished product, then suffering the repeated scorn of unsympathetic management.