When Jeanette Mary needed the engine rebuilt on her 1993 Jeep Wrangler, she went to a friend of a friend of a friend whom she thought was a mechanic.
As it turns out, the guy who promised to rebuild her engine, Walter Hatcher, was really a paint and body specialist for Simon Auto Sales who subcontracted the engine work out.
Ms. Mary said she wrote him a $500 check up front and didn't see her Jeep for seven weeks. When she did, she said, her new water pump had been replaced with a broken one and several parts of the motor, which had been ripped out improperly, were missing.
She said she had to replace nearly $250 worth of parts that were either stolen or damaged and had to pay someone to put them back in.
"The only recourse we have is to go to small claims court because no attorney will take the case," Ms. Mary said. "They don't see any money in it unless the company was involved, and we'd have to prove that."
Dallas Simon, owner of Simon Auto Sales, said Mr. Hatcher was "doing a job on the side." For his part, Mr. Hatcher denies damaging the engine and stealing any parts, saying he just wanted to help Ms. Mary.
"I just stepped in too deep, and I'm not a mechanic," Mr. Hatcher said. "It was me who was trying to help her out. It had nothing to do with Simon Auto Sales."
It's not uncommon for mechanics to use the tools and space of their employers for private ventures, and many times the work is solid. But consumers have little protection against shoddy jobs done on side agreements.
Without a real business involved, assessing liability can be impossible and proving guilt can be pointless. Lawyer Jack Baston said he hasn't argued a case such as Ms. Mary's in 18 years - by choice.
"It isn't worth it for the consumer to pay the lawyer," Mr. Baston said. "They're better off taking the money they'd spend on a lawyer and getting their car fixed."
He said if there's an agreement between the owner and the mechanic, it could be argued the owner is responsible.
Proving that connection is the problem.
"It's a very tough issue," Mr. Baston said. "Every legal case takes a certain amount of time to prove. With automobiles you have to have an expert mechanic examine the vehicle, identify the problem and then show evidence that it was caused by the guy who was hired to fix it."
James McCormick, the president and CEO of Augusta's Better Business Bureau, said "shadetree mechanics" aren't as reliable as they once were because today's technology is more complicated.
"Consumers need to take their cars to a reputable auto repair shop, preferably one that is ASE- or ASA-certified," he said. "Otherwise, it's a gamble, and they have to realize that."
Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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