Commercial contractor Joseph W. Schmitz Jr. of Gamber has owned more than 40 Chevrolet trucks over the years, and had always been pleased with their performance. So, when he noticed that his 1997 Chevrolet Astro van was pulling to the right, and violently so upon braking, he returned it to the dealership for service.
Between October 1996 and July 1997, mechanics at Chevrolet dealerships in Glen Burnie and Westminster tried seven times to fix the problem. Seven times they failed.
Finally, engineers for General Motors Corp. concluded nothing was wrong with the van and said the steering problem Schmitz reported was an "operational characteristic" of the vehicle.
Schmitz sued General Motors under Maryland's Automobile Warranty Enforcement Act of 1984 -- commonly known as the "lemon law" -- for breach of warranty. Three times, in three separate courts, Schmitz won the case.
"It seems very clear-cut to me," said Schmitz, who bought the van in September 1996. "There's something wrong with the van. They're supposed to fix it. They didn't fix it. Not only didn't they fix it, they told me there's nothing wrong with it.
"I've owned at least 40 or 50 Chevys," he added. "This is the first one I've had problems with. I just want to be reimbursed so I can buy another van."
In the most recent legal battle, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled that General Motors must accept the return of Schmitz's van, reimburse him $20,000 and pay his court costs and attorney fees.
The ruling, which was filed Thursday, affirmed the decisions of lower courts.
On March 15, 1999, Carroll County District Judge JoAnn Ellinghaus-Jones ruled in Schmitz's favor after listening to several hours of testimony and watching a video of the van, which showed the vehicle pulling to the right.
General Motors appealed, claiming District Court did not have jurisdiction over the matter. On March 22, 2000, Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. upheld the District Court's ruling.
General Motors appealed to the state's highest court, claiming that Schmitz had failed to notify the company by certified mail of his vehicle's defects as required by the lemon law.
The Court of Appeals rejected the company's argument because GM "failed to disclose the notice requirement conspicuously to [Schmitz] at the time of the vehicle's sale," court records show.
"I think it's a victory for the consumer," said Schmitz's attorney, Michael P. Tanczyn of Towson. Tanczyn said he hopes the ruling prompts GM to re-evaluate how the company handles "troublesome vehicles in the future."
It was not clear Friday when Schmitz will receive his money.
"We are working to resolve the matter as soon as possible," said GM spokeswoman Kelly Cusinato, who was reached at her Detroit office. "We will not appeal the case."
The company's only remaining appeal would have been to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chevrolet Astro vans are built at GM's Broening Highway plant in East Baltimore.