A judge has ordered Mercedes-Benz USA LLC to pay $482,000 in damages and legal fees to a Wisconsin customer who was sold a defective car and not given a refund on time.
Vince Megna, a Milwaukee lawyer who represents the customer, said he believes the judgment is the largest involving a single car under a state "lemon law," which protect consumers who are sold junk cars. The judge is expected to sign the final order as early as Friday.
Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman Donna Boland said the company, a unit of the German car maker Daimler AG, is disappointed the judge overturned an earlier verdict in favor of the company and is strongly considering an appeal. The spat over the 2005 Mercedes-Benz E 320 has already dragged on more than four years.
While states have a variety of lemon laws, Wisconsin's is one of the strongest. It allows customers who buy cars that don't run or can't be repaired to demand a replacement or refund. Manufacturers have 30 days to respond and can be ordered to pay double the purchase price plus legal fees for violating the law.
Bob Silverman, a prominent lemon law attorney in Ambler, Pa. who was not involved in the case, agreed it was one of the largest judgments for a car he's seen and was an important victory for consumers.
"This one result is very important to the entire auto industry," Silverman said. "It teaches them a lesson they ought to comply with the law promptly or they are going to have to pay in the end."
Despite the pending judgment, customer Marco Marquez, a 37-year-old businessman from Waukesha, called the case "a complete nightmare" and said he was still waiting for his money back. Once a big fan of Mercedes-Benz who has owned several of its cars, he now says he'll never buy another.
It all started when Marquez, who owns Mexican restaurants in Waukesha and Janesville, purchased the E 320 for $56,000 from a Milwaukee dealership in 2005.
Almost immediately, the car often would not start. The battery was replaced multiple times, but the problem continued. After several repair attempts, the dealership said the problem could not be fixed.
Marquez hired Megna, who sent the company a refund demand in October 2005. After a few weeks, an employee tried to talk Marquez into taking a replacement instead. He declined and again asked for a refund. At one point, the employee said he should fire his lawyer and deal with them on his own.
The company finally agreed to the refund, but failed to provide one within 30 days. On the 31st day, Megna filed the lawsuit on behalf of Marquez seeking double damages and attorneys' fees.
Mercedes-Benz has acknowledged the car was defective, but for years has accused Marquez of acting in bad faith.
The company says an employee asked Marquez for information about his auto loan on the 30th day so the refund could be granted, but Marquez failed to follow through. Megna said Mercedes-Benz had the information it needed for the refund but was stalling.
A judge ruled in Marquez's favor in 2007, awarding $202,000 in damages and legal fees. But an appeals court in 2008 overturned that decision and ordered additional proceedings, saying a jury should decide whether Marquez intentionally prevented the company from giving the refund on time.
A jury sided with the company last year, agreeing Marquez acted in bad faith. But in a rare move, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren overturned the verdict, saying it was not backed up by evidence. He ruled in Marquez's favor, citing a clear "lack of urgency" by Mercedes-Benz to refund his money.
A series of rulings by Bohren have calculated the damages for Marquez at roughly $168,000 (double the purchase price plus interest), plus $314,000 in costs and legal fees for Megna and other lawyers.
In the meantime, Marquez has continued to drive the vehicle in question, which now has 56,000 miles. He said it was back in the shop for repairs twice last year but has been "working fine" lately. Still, he can barely contain his anger at the company he once admired.
"Frustrated is really an understatement," he said. "You put that much faith in a car company and you give your hard earned money to that company and then you are basically let down. You drop $50,000 for a car that doesn't work."
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