“La Forza Del Destino.” These are the words that Felix Unger utters while waving his finger at Oscar Madison. He blames Oscar for the inevitable series of problems that arise as a result of his decision to buy a car and keep it on the streets of New York City.
“La Forza Del Destino.” The force of destiny. Felix was probably right when the episode aired forty years ago, and it is still true today. When it comes to cars, especially classic cars, we are responsible when bad things happen as a result of our decisions.
I am currently involved in three legal cases that could be entitled “When good restorations go bad.” They all involve classic car owners and restoration shops. They differ in that one of the cases involves the quality of the workmanship, another involves the time that it is taking to restore the car, and the last involves overcharges and charges for work that was never performed. The differences highlight just a few of the many things that can go wrong during a restoration.
But more important than the differences, is the one thing that they all have in common. All three classic car owners turned their cars over to a restoration shop without any contract. They then paid between $100,000 and $150,000 to the restoration shops and none of the cars are even close to completion. That is when they halted work and filed suit against the shops. That might not sound so bad, except for the fact that the most valuable of the three cars will be worth about $30,000 when -- and if -- the restoration is ever completed.
Even the most basic of contracts would have addressed the issues of the quality of work to be performed, length of time for the restoration, and how the work would be invoiced.
Who is responsible for this? It would be easy to claim that the shop owner is responsible. After all, what shop owner would accept a car for restoration without a written contract? As it turns out, a lot of shops will. You the customer are the one that needs the protection that the contract offers, and you the customer are the one that should insist on a contract. Or you the customer will be the one with the lengthy and expensive burden of proof that will often be a losing proposition even if you win the case.
Without a contract you will have absolutely no proof as to what the agreement was between you and the restoration shop. In most cases, including those mentioned above, the hearing will boil down to this: The shop owner will come into court and state “Your honor, my shop works on a “labor and materials” basis. We spent $5,000 on materials, and 950 hours of labor at $100 per hour. That’s why we’ve billed $100,000.” Your attorney will respond with “Your honor, why would my client authorize $100,000 of work for a car that’s only worth $30,000? And your honor, the car is not even half complete!” Questions will be asked of material witnesses, fact witnesses and expert witnesses. Objections will fly, expensive motions may be filed, and finally the decision will be left to a judge or a jury to decide.
In almost all cases the court will find that you, the classic car owner, are a grown-up. Neither the shop owner nor the court are in a position to determine how much you wanted to spend, or should have spent. In my experience, the court’s opinion has usually been that if you were smart enough to retain an attorney to file a suit against the shop owner, you should have been smart enough to retain an attorney to draw up a simple contract. Case closed. There are of course exceptions, such as when a shop owner commits fraud by charging for work that was never performed.
This brings up back to the original subject – the responsibility of the car owner. A restoration – or even a major repair, can be a very expensive undertaking. You have a responsibility to get a contract in writing. Contracts force both parties to actually think about what it is that they are agreeing to do, and not to do. A contract will always benefit the car owner. Trust me on this one. In the absence of a contract, it will be very difficult for you to prove that the restorer did not live up to his end of the bargain.
You as the car owner also have a responsibility to verify that the work is being done to your expectations. Make appointments and visit the shop regularly. Lastly, you have a responsibility to keep track of your expenditures. It is simply mind-boggling how many people come to me after spending over $100,000 on a restoration for which they have no contract and have never seen the car.
All of these responsibilities on the part of the car owner are collectively called “due diligence.” If you do not want to exercise due diligence, the force of destiny is going to bite you in the butt. Or as Felix might say, “La forza del destino ti morderà nel culo.”