THE LITTLE LAWSUIT THAT COULD
®MD120¯ Ä CTEXTSETTER Ä 222 Lines Ä Depth 95.4 Picas Ä 15.89 In. Ä 33.94 Col In. ÄÄ ®MDNM¯
®MDUL¯Agnes Lang says of the car salesmen: ÔWe figured they were honest people."
In July 1989, 77-year-old Agnes Lang bought a car from East Valley Jeep Eagle. After a day of haggling, Mrs. Lang agreed to pay the sticker price for the 1987 Plymouth Horizon, less trade-in and a rebate.
"We figured they were honest people and what they told us was true," she says. "I believed I was dealing with a reliable outfit that was telling me the truth."
Such a deal it wasn't.
The Tempe resident says the car salesmen she dealt with told her that the "Black Book" value of the car (the dealership's not-so-true-blue version of the reputable ÔBlue Book") was the listed sticker price of $6,795. Turns out the real Blue Book price was about $4,000. And what made things worse is that the Plymouth broke down the day after Agnes Lang bought it.
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What ensued has become the focus of a bitterly fought Maricopa County Superior Court lawsuit, which was scheduled to start Monday.
This "little" case has generated more paperwork for courthouse clerks than many murder cases. For one thing, the opposing attorneys can't stand each other-"Now that you have seen fit to attack me personally...," one wrote to another recently.
Add Judge Marilyn Riddel to this mix and you have the makings of a mess. Some attorneys refer to Judge Riddel as "OT," referring to how often appellate courts overturn her decisions. In this twisted tale, the judge was overturned even before a jury was selected to hear the evidence.
The reason it happened was an astonishing ruling by Judge Riddel that seemed to slam the car door on Agnes Lang's fingers.
The judge ruled last September 18 that Lang and her attorney couldn't bring up any evidence of alleged crookedness by East Valley Jeep Eagle. The judge wrote: ÔThe fact that East Valley Jeep Eagle may be devious/crooked is not relevant."
Wrong again, judge.
Riddel's ruling seriously jeopardized Lang's claim, so her attorney, Steven Cheifetz, took it to the Arizona Court of Appeals. The appellate court quickly ruled in Lang's favor, which meant she and her lawyer could attempt to show the jury other alleged rip-offs by the dealership.
Jeep Eagle's lawyer, Evan Goldstein, maintains that Agnes Lang was not ripped off. ÔThe only dispute," he says in court records, "is to value, which is an expression of an opinion. Where value is merely an expression of opinion, it will not support a claim for fraud."
In other words, if little old Agnes Lang was taken for a ride, tough luck.
In a nutshell, here's what happened on that ride, based on court records filed in this case:
Agnes Lang, accompanied by her son, John, and a family friend, went to East Valley Jeep Eagle on July 1, 1989. She took with her an advertisement that promised a free camera just for showing up at the dealership and a $1,000 rebate for buying a car.
After a time, Mrs. Lang came upon a 1987 Plymouth Horizon that looked promising. She took it for a test drive and liked it. The sticker on the Plymouth priced it at $6,795, more than what Mrs. Lang could afford, even with a rebate and a trade-in.
Mrs. Lang says she asked salesman Troy Teague what the car's Blue Book value was. Teague, according to uncontroverted testimony, told her that East Valley Jeep Eagle uses a Black Book, and that the book showed the Plymouth was worth exactly $6,795.
"I saw the sticker price, but when he kept running in and out, I figured he was coming down on the price," Mrs. Lang recalls. "I had heard from other people to be careful, but I had no reason to believe these people were not reliable and truthful."
Several hours later, Agnes Lang signed several pieces of paper. The deal called for her to pay Jeep Eagle a down payment of $2,000, and specified that a financial institution would finance the rest. The grand total came to $4,918 (before interest, of course) after the rebate and the trade-in.
"There was this confusion going on," Mrs. Lang says. "He never said, `Sit down and look at this and make sure what you're signing.'"
Two days later, Mrs. Lang was on her way to the bank to put enough money in her checking account to cover the $2,000 down payment to Jeep Eagle. She says the car started to knock loudly and the exhaust system "shook, rattled and knocked."
She called Jeep Eagle and asked them not to cash her $2,000 check until the car was repaired. According to court documents, Jeep Eagle deposited the check anyway, which caused several of Mrs. Lang's checks to bounce.
Someone at Jeep Eagle soon told Mrs. Lang the Plymouth needed valve lifters and a cam kit. She told them she didn't want to have anything more to do with the lemon. Mrs. Lang then postponed a trip to California to visit an ill daughter, and stayed at her Tempe home, her lawyer contends, with "an extremely elevated blood-pressure level" that forced her to seek medical help.
She and her son did some investigating and learned that the true value of the car-based on the Blue Book-was about $4,000, not $6,795.
About two weeks later, Jeep Eagle salesman Morgan Stanley showed up at Mrs. Lang's home with the Plymouth. She said she didn't want the car, but he told her it was too late for that. Agnes Lang had signed on the dotted line.
Mrs. Lang's son, John-a psychologist-wrote of the experience: "I really had come to believe that the old-time caricatures of ruthless, lying, phony car salesmen were a thing of the past. The dealership is building some very bad karma for itself and for the reputation of car dealers throughout the Valley with this sort of behavior."
Court records in the case include the unsigned affidavit of Michael Viruso, East Valley Jeep Eagle's onetime finance director and general sales manager. ÔJeep Eagle's salesmen regularly represented that the sales price of used cars was comparable to the Blue Book price of that particular vehicle," Viruso wrote, "when in fact the Blue Book price was much lower."
Viruso added that "Jeep Eagle would advise purchasers that it would obtain financing from various financial institutions at the best rate available, when in fact it would receive kickbacks from the financial institutions depending upon the rate of loan it negotiated with the prospective purchaser."
But Judge Riddel, in her crucial September 18 ruling, said a jury wouldn't be allowed to hear Michael Viruso's testimony. That's one of the reasons Lang's attorney, Steven Cheifetz, rushed to the Court of Appeals. Cheifetz's victory at the appellate court, however, may have turned out to be fairly hollow. Court records indicate that Viruso-now living in Iowa-changed his mind about testifying against his former employer.
Agnes Lang still drives the Plymouth she bought from East Valley Jeep Eagle. The dealership claims it has run just fine since it repaired the car and returned it to her in 1989. But Agnes Lang, claiming she was hoodwinked on the car's value and paid at least $2,000 too much, is seeking a minimum of $10,000 in damages.
Judge Riddel's rulings in this case have almost uniformly favored East Valley Jeep Eagle. The rulings' impact on the jury remains uncertain. (There wasn't a verdict by press time.) It's hard to imagine a jury failing to relate to the plight of a woman, now 79, who works part-time at Wendy's to supplement her fixed income.
"I rely on people to be telling me the truth," Agnes Lang says. "I rely on that.
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