California court judgment opens automobile lending institutions to larger claim payments

Consumer groups are cheering a California Supreme Court choice that states automobile lending institutions are accountable for cars and truck buyers’ legal costs in matches including deceitful automobile sales.

One instant effect of recently’s judgment is for Tania Pulliam, who is now qualified for a minimum of $169,602 in lawyer costs, on top of almost $22,000 in damages. Pulliam had actually taken legal action against both her automobile dealership and the lending institution, TD Auto Finance, over the sale of a cars and truck that presumably did not have specific marketed functions that she required due to an impairment.

But the judgment will likewise have wider implications, opening lending institutions to more legal danger in California, given that having the ability to recover lawyer costs makes claims more financially possible for customers.

TD Auto Finance was taken legal action against by a cars and truck purchaser who declares the automobile she acquired did not have specific marketed functions she required due to an impairment.


The hope amongst customer advocacy groups is that the increased legal danger will trigger lending institutions to stop working with automobile dealers that participate in doubtful practices.

“This is going to encourage the lenders who profit from their cozy relationships with them to be a little more diligent,” stated Rosemary Shahan, president of the Sacramento, California-based group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

The American Financial Services Association, a trade group that represents automobile lending institutions, stated it was dissatisfied in the choice.

“Allowing unlimited attorneys’ fee awards helps one group of people in California – the attorneys,” representative Ed McFadden stated. “This is likely to lead to increased litigation that doesn’t help either the consumer or the auto industry.”

The judgment focused on a decades-old Federal Trade Commission guideline — and whether the guideline states that lending institutions are just accountable for reimbursing the cost of a defrauded customer’s cars and truck purchase, instead of likewise being on the hook for their lawyers’ costs.

Consumer groups and automobile lending institutions disagree on that point, and courts have actually divided on the concern. California has a law in location explaining that customers can recover lawyer costs from lending institutions, however lending institutions argued that the federal guideline supersedes the state law.

In a unanimous choice, California’s greatest court declined the lending institutions’ arguments. “It is clear that the FTC contemplated that state law might offer greater protections for consumers and that these protections might be accompanied by recovery in excess of the amounts paid on the contract,” Justice Goodwin Liu composed in his viewpoint.

A representative for TD Bank stated the business does not talk about lawsuits.

The bank’s attorneys had actually argued that the California Supreme Court must reverse an earlier judgment by an appeals court, which discovered that Pulliam was qualified for almost $170,000 in lawyer costs. In a court filing in 2015, TD’s attorneys composed that the FTC guideline is “unambiguous” in restricting lending institutions’ liability to the purchase cost of a cars and truck under the agreement — which in Pulliam’s case had to do with $12,500.

Under the appeal court’s judgment, an “innocent creditor is liable for $170,000 or more based on a contract under which a consumer spent just $12,500 on a used car,” TD’s attorneys composed in the filing. They cautioned that making lending institutions accountable for customers’ legal costs might trigger the market to draw back available credit.

“If creditors risked uncapped attorney’s fees when financing consumer contracts, they would be less likely to take that risk and finance those contracts,” TD’s attorneys composed in 2015.

But Pulliam’s attorneys argued that TD’s objective was to make it “impossible for consumers to sue the holders of their consumer credit contracts when they have been cheated by fraudulent sellers.”

The court’s judgment can “help really put teeth” in the FTC guideline and make automobile lending institutions in California decline to work with dealerships “engaging in shady practices,” Bernard Brown, a prominent automobile scams attorney, composed in an e-mail to customer lawyers.

“The upshot would be to do a great deal to clean up the rotten used-car sales industry we have today,” Brown composed, motivating lawyers to browse their own state laws and handle comparable cases.

The FTC, whose guideline has actually remained in location given that 1975, weighed in on the California court fight indirectly in January. The company launched an advisory viewpoint stressing that its “rule does not eliminate any rights a consumer may have” to recover lawyer costs under state law.

The California judgment is considerable since it clarifies the concern in the nation’s most populated state, however attorneys indicated the FTC’s advisory viewpoint as another source of increased legal danger for automobile lending institutions.

Combined with the California judgment, the FTC’s viewpoint might motivate comparable claims somewhere else, stated Alan Wingfield, a partner at Troutman Pepper who represents automobile lending institutions. Another possible outcome is that legislators in other states will pass attorney-fee laws that look like the California statute, he stated. 

“We’ll see this play out on a state-by-state, nationwide basis,” Wingfield stated, including that the California Supreme Court might “set the tone” for court choices somewhere else.


A news media journalist always on the go, I've been published in major publications including VICE, The Atlantic, and TIME.

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