GABRIEL E. RINCON
OWENS COLLISION AND REPAIR SERVICE CENTER, LLC
Appealed from the 19th Judicial District Court In
and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge, State of Louisiana
Trial Court No. 631492 Honorable R. Michael Caldwell, Judge.
MICHAEL J. REMONDET, JR. MICHAEL R. GUIDRY LAFAYETTE, LA AND
ERIK M. TADDA BATON ROUGE, LA ATTORNEYS FOR PLAINTIFF
-APPELLEE GABRIEL E. RINCON
VAN EARL BATON ROUGE, LA ATTORNEY FOR DEFENDANT -APPELLANT
OWENS COLLISION AND REPAIR SERVICE CENTER, LLC
BEFORE: PETTIGREW, WELCH, AND CHUTZ, JJ.
case arising from a dispute over the repair of a vehicle
following a collision, the defendant appeals a judgment in
favor of the plaintiff under Louisiana's Unfair Trade
Practices and Consumer Protection Law ("LUTPA").
For the reasons set forth herein, we vacate the award of
treble damages; amend the judgment to award $2, 629.08 in
actual damages and $12, 500.00 in attorney fees; and as
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
April 3, 2014, Gabriel Rincon brought his approximately
four-week-old 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring vehicle to
Owens Collision and Repair Service Center, L.L.C.
("Owens") to obtain an estimate for repair of
damage to the vehicle from a March 31, 2014 collision.
Owens' original estimate, totaling $4, 774.54, was for
repairs using only original equipment manufacturer
("OEM") parts, because the vehicle was brand new
and Mr. Rincon did not want to affect the warranty. On April
4, 2014, Mr. Rincon signed a Contract for Motor Vehicle
Repair prepared by Owens and dropped the vehicle off to be
repaired. Mr. Rincon was allegedly told by Owens' office
manager, Devon Furlow Stephens, that the repairs would take
around seven to ten days.
then issued a supplement to its original estimate on April
10, 2014, increasing the repair cost to $8, 370.16. Mr.
Rincon's insurer allegedly rejected parts of Owens'
supplemental estimate as excessive. Negotiations over the
repair costs between Owens and the insurance company went on
for weeks, during which time Mr. Rincon's vehicle was not
being repaired and Mr. Rincon was driving a rental car, which
was only partially covered by his insurance company for the
first twenty days.
beginning of May 2014, Mr. Rincon told Owens that he needed
his car fixed, or he would take it somewhere else to be
repaired. Mr. Rincon then met with Greg Owens, the sole
member/manager of Owens, and agreed to a "Budget Repair
Service" on his vehicle, using certain non-OEM parts,
for an amount not to exceed $7, 018.67, which Mr. Rincon
testified was the amount his insurance company had approved.
Mr. Rincon signed an addendum to his original repair contract
on May 13, 2014, selecting the Budget Repair Service option.
According to Mr. Rincon, he agreed to the Budget Repair
Service option because he was told that the repairs would be
completed by May 27, 2014, and he needed his car back so that
he would not continue to accrue rental car charges.
Friday evening, May 16, 2014, Mr. Rincon emailed Ms.
Stephens, stating "Please note that I have not asked you
to not repair my vehicle. I am merely asking about this for
documentation." It is unclear what prompted Mr. Rincon
to send this email, but Ms. Stephens responded to his email
on that same date, stating "[W]e are not fixing your
vehicle at this point. You will have to have it moved on
monday (sic)." At the time he was told to pick up his
vehicle, the vehicle was in a disassembled state and would
have to be towed. Owens sent Mr. Rincon a bill for charges
related to the vehicle totaling $6, 288.20. After subtracting
the insurance payments, there was a balance due by Mr. Rincon
of $4, 044.07, which would have to be paid in order to
retrieve the vehicle. This invoice included the following
charges, some of which the original repair contract stated
would be due in the event the vehicle was removed before the
repairs were fully completed:
Storage Fee (4/4/14-5/16/14)
Disassembly, Analysis, and Repair
20, 2014, Mr. Rincon filed a Consumer Complaint Form with the
Louisiana Attorney General, alleging that Owens' actions
related to the repair of his vehicle amount to "pure
extortion and unfair trade practices."
Rincon discussed his options with his attorney, Erik Tadda,
and decided that it did not make sense to pay Owens $4,
044.07 to retrieve his vehicle, and then pay to have the
vehicle repaired elsewhere. According to Ms. Stephens, Mr.
verbal authorization to Owens to proceed with the repairs of
the vehicle and also authorized Owens to order an additional
part in excess of the limit stated by Mr. Rincon in the
Budget Repair Service agreement.
Mr. Tadda instructed Owens to repair the vehicle, the work
was put "on hold" due to one or more parts being on
backorder. Mr. Rincon testified that he sent an email to Ms.
Stephens on May 27, 2014, expressing his understanding that
the repairs were delayed due to a backordered sensor, and
requesting that if the vehicle could be made
"operational" and "road worthy" without
the sensor, he would like to get it back so that he would not
continue to incur charges for a rental vehicle. According to
Mr. Rincon, he was told by Owens that the car could not be
released without the sensor for safety reasons. On May 29,
2014, Mr. Rincon's attorney emailed Ms. Stephens seeking
to document the delay caused by the backordered part, asking
when the part had been ordered and reminding her that Mr.
Rincon was continuing to incur charges for a rental car. Ms.
Stephens responded to Mr. Tadda's email on June 2, 2014,
stating that she would check on the part and let him know.
There is no further response to Mr. Tadda about this part in
the record, but Ms. Stephens testified that she believed this
part arrived in June and was installed within "a couple
4, 2014, another attorney representing Mr. Rincon faxed a
letter to Owens, advising that Mr. Rincon no longer wished to
do business with Owens and requesting immediate release of
the vehicle so that Mr. Rincon could have the repairs
completed elsewhere, as well as an accounting for the amount
already paid by the insurance company towards the repairs.
Another letter was faxed to Owens on June 12, 2014, again
demanding return of the vehicle and explaining that as of
June 4, 2014, any authorization for Owens to work on the
vehicle was rescinded. The letter expressed Mr. Rincon's
willingness to pay "Justified charges" for
work actually performed on the vehicle, and requested a
detailed, itemized breakdown of the charges, including copies
of invoices for any parts or supplies which were ordered and
copies of the applicable return policies for those parts or
supplies. Mr. Rincon's attorney also requested
documentation that Owens is authorized to charge storage
fees, since it is not a licensed storage facility.
23, 2014, Mr. Rincon filed a Petition for Declaration of
Ownership, Revindication, Conversion, and Damages against
Owens, requesting a declaration of ownership and return of
the vehicle, in addition to recovery of damages, costs, and
attorney fees. The petition alleged that Owens violated LUTPA
and requested treble damages and other relief available
thereunder. Owens opposed Mr. Rincon's request for return
of the vehicle, claiming a mechanic's privilege for
payment of the cost of repairs, and requested that the matter
be referred to Arbitration as required by the original repair
contract signed by Mr. Rincon.
updated invoice, dated July 31, 2014, was prepared by Owens
for Mr. Rincon's vehicle. This invoice included charges
of $7, 697.09 for "Work Completed" and $1, 081.00
for "Storage Fees" for the period of 06/12/14 -
07/28/14. According to Mr. Owens, Mr. Rincon was charged
storage fees after June 12, 2014, because the repairs were
complete at that time, but the vehicle had not been picked up
by the customer. These storage fees were eventually removed
from the invoice, and Mr. Rincon was only charged for the
work completed ($7, 697.09), which totaled $5, 452.96 after
the insurance payments received by Owens were applied.
August 5, 2014, Mr. Rincon paid Owens $5, 452.96, and the
vehicle was released to him. Mr. Rincon testified that
immediately upon starting the vehicle, it showed that the
sensor was malfunctioning. He reported this to Mr. Owens'
son, Brad Owens, who also works at the business, and Brad
told him to bring the car back the next day and they would
take care of it then. Mr. Rincon left with the vehicle as
instructed, but did not return it to Owens the next day.
After driving for a few days without the sensor working, he
noticed other things that were not working properly and
decided to have the vehicle inspected to ensure that the
repairs had been done properly.
August 14, 2014, Mr. Rincon brought the vehicle, along with a
copy of Owens' bill for the repairs performed,
Medine's Collision Center (Medine's), an auto body
repair shop in Baton Rouge that offers post-collision repair
inspections. Medine's owner, Chris Medine, took apart Mr.
Rincon's vehicle and inspected the repair work done by
Owens, which he compared to Owens' bill. Based on his
inspection, Mr. Medine informed Mr. Rincon that his vehicle
had not been properly repaired by Owens, and he estimated
that completing the repairs would cost $1, 950.66.
the time Mr. Rincon paid Owens and retrieved his vehicle, the
lawsuit was delayed numerous times and took over three years
to get to trial. On Mr. Rincon's motion, a status
conference to set trial deadlines was held on July 17, 2015,
and the trial court set the matter for a bench trial on
January 12, 2016. The trial court issued a case management
schedule with the trial deadlines, which stated that
"Mediation has been seriously discussed and the parties
believe that this case is not suited for Mediation because
the amount in dispute is not enough to warrant the
cost." This case management schedule does not mention
Owens' request for Arbitration. Less than a month before
the January 12, 2016 trial date, and after Mr. Rincon's
pretrial statement was filed, Owens filed a motion requesting
that the trial court order the parties to arbitrate and issue
a stay of all proceedings. After a hearing on January 12,
2016, the trial court granted Owens' motion, but noted
that its order directing the parties to arbitrate would
expire in sixty days if Arbitration was not scheduled. On May
26, 2016, Mr. Rincon filed a motion in the trial court,
seeking to dismiss the Arbitration and to reset the matter
for trial due to the fact that the Arbitration proceeding
scheduled for June 14, 2016, had been cancelled due to
Owens' failure to pay Arbitration fees and provide a
signed confirmation of Arbitration and fee agreements. Owens
opposed the motion to dismiss the Arbitration on the grounds
that the judgment ordering Arbitration and staying the trial
court proceedings was a final judgment between the parties,
and therefore any ruling regarding the payment of costs of
the Arbitration would have to come from the Arbitrator. A
hearing was held in the trial court, after which the trial
court dismissed Mr. Rincon's motion on the grounds that
the trial court no longer had jurisdiction over the matter
due to the pending Arbitration proceeding. Mr. Rincon then
filed a motion in the Arbitration proceeding and obtained a
dismissal of the Arbitration and a remand of the matter to
the trial court on October 10, 2016. After remand, counsel
for Mr. Rincon filed a motion for status conference in the
trial court to set another trial date. A telephone conference
was held, and the one-day bench trial was scheduled for
September 15, 2017.
trial, Mr. Medine testified as an expert in auto body repair
regarding his post-collision repair inspection of Mr.
Rincon's vehicle. Mr. Medine testified that when he
inspected the sensor that Mr. Rincon reported was
malfunctioning, he found that it was damaged, despite the
fact that Owens' bill included a $1, 437.00 charge for a
replacement sensor, plus labor for installation of the
replacement sensor. Mr. Medine's opinion was that the
sensor had not been replaced at all by Owens, or had been
replaced with a damaged sensor. In addition to the sensor,
Mr. Medine testified that he found a number of other issues
with the repair work performed by Owens:
I took off the front bumper cover, and the bumper
reinforcement still had the same damage on the vehicle that
was originally on the vehicle. It was not replaced. There
wasn't a [sic] energy absorber that he . . . paid for
-that was not there. There was some damage on the rear body
panel that I -1 noticed that the bumper wasn't fitting
properly, so I asked him if I could take that off, and he
said yes. So we took the rear body bumper cover off, and the
rear body panel still had damage, and it had some rust on the
-right in the center. And there was some frame damage still
on the - it was evident - on the left and right rear frame