Thinking back now, Earl Arnette figures it was probably a bad sign when he couldn't find exactly what he was looking for at a dealership in Maryland - a fully loaded, gold metallic GMC Acadia with 19-inch chrome rims, dual DVD player, dual sun roof and navigation system.
Arnette thought he found it online, however, at a dealership in Pittsburgh. So the Glenwood resident flew there in April, and even though he found it was missing the chrome rims, Arnette paid $45,000 and drove his dream wheels 225 miles home.
Unfortunately for Arnette, things quickly went downhill.
While showing off the sport utility vehicle to his wife, Arnette discovered that the power lift-gate wouldn't open. Then the adjustable seat belts wouldn't adjust. A remote control to start the SUV stopped working.
Arnette called a dealership near his Howard County home April 21 to schedule repairs under warranty. But before he could get it there, Arnette and a firetruck hit head on. Arnette wasn't seriously injured, even though the air bags did not deploy. The Acadia suffered major damage.
The SUV was towed to another local dealership. Three weeks went by, then another month, and so on.
"When I called the dealership, they said, 'Your insurance company gave us all the money we require, but we can't find parts for it,'" Arnette said. "So I looked online and I called GM and I discovered there was a shortage of parts. I called the executive office and they said, 'Mr. Arnette, we are so sorry.'
"Everyone was sorry, but they didn't do anything to help me," he said. "My car stayed in the shop for four months. Meanwhile, I'm spending a ton of money to rent a car, and then I had to borrow my mother's car."
On Aug. 14, Arnette finally got his Acadia back, but lo and behold, the remote starter and power lift-gate still didn't work. Then the global positioning system conked out.
"I'm just aggravated," Arnette said. "I called the executive office again to explain my problems and all they offered me was to pay for the car I had rented."
Arnette responded by sending a complaint letter to G. Richard Wagoner Jr., chief executive of General Motors Corp. He asked for four things: 1. Pay his $803.40 car rental fee (which GM had already offered to do). 2. Pay him four months of car payments, totaling $2,079, for the time he was without his car. 3. Ship him the chrome rims he paid for, but never received. 4. Provide him a loaner car when his Acadia goes back into the shop to fix the problems that weren't fixed the first time.
Arnette also contacted the Maryland attorney general.
Normally, that's a smart step for a consumer to take to protect himself. But at GM, Arnette's letter to the AG triggered an automatic redirect of his complaint to GM's legal department and all contact with Arnette ceased, GM spokesman Randy Fox said. Should he decide to drop his "legal action" with the attorney general's office, GM's executive customer assistance center would try again to work out an amicable solution with Arnette, Fox said.
"Now that his complaint has been elevated, we can't contact him," Fox said.
There is no guarantee, however, that GM would offer Arnette anything more than the initial proposal to cover his prior rental car fee, Fox said.
So because GM won't budge on its first offer and won't talk to him, Arnette says he has to sue.
Since we can't get any traction on resolving this case, let's go over what went wrong for Arnette and how GM missed an opportunity to do right.
First off, purchasing a car at a dealership so far from home prevented Arnette from resolving his problems quickly or easily. Warranty repair can be performed by any dealership anywhere, but dealers have more incentive to go beyond the call if you bought the car from them.
Second, car buyers should be aware that buying new models hot off the assembly line can bring unforeseen problems.
Typically, "parts for new cars can be difficult to obtain," said Ron Rossi, director of market research for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.
Had Arnette taken his car in for warranty repairs before the accident, GM would have been responsible for fixing his Acadia in a timely fashion under Maryland's lemon law, according to the Kimmel & Silverman law firm. After the accident, however, all bets were off.
"If it's an accident situation, that same responsibility does not fall on GM," said Michael Sacks, Kimmel's auto consumer advocate. "They didn't cause him to get into an accident. He's now at the mercy of GM."
This doesn't excuse GM's response, however. While GM might not be legally liable for the delay in getting parts, there was nothing preventing it from pulling parts off the assembly line, consumer interest lawyer Peter Holland said.
And there's the issue of the air bags not deploying in the accident. It turns out GMC recalled the Acadia model in February for faulty air bag sensors, according to several consumer car blogs. The lawsuit Arnette is looking to file now could focus on that persnickety little issue.
Seems to me things didn't have to go that far.
Had GM met Arnette halfway - say, offer him the $803.40 rental fee and a loaner car to fix the remaining warranty problems - it could have avoided a court case. Arnette said he would have accepted such an offer.
And GM certainly didn't have to strong-arm Arnette once he dared complain to someone whose job is to mediate consumer complaints.
No other company I've dealt with has treated a complaint to the attorney general this way.
Why risk bad word-of-mouth on a product that is getting rave reviews? One would think GM could have tried a little harder to accommodate a consumer who wanted the Acadia so badly he traveled 200-plus miles to buy it.
Sun reporter Sara Murray contributed to this article.
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