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Rincon v. Owens Collision and Repair Service Center, LLC

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

September 21, 2018

GABRIEL E. RINCON
v.
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

          ASHLY VAN EARL BATON ROUGE, LA ATTORNEY FOR DEFENDANT -APPELLANT OWENS COLLISION AND REPAIR SERVICE CENTER, LLC

          BEFORE: PETTIGREW, WELCH, AND CHUTZ, JJ.

          PETTIGREW, J.

         In this 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 amended, affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On 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.

         Owens 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.

         In the 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.

         On 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)

$851.00

Disassembly, Analysis, and Repair $700.00
Processing Fee $675.00
Parts $3, 612.20
Paint Supplies $450.00

         On May 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."

         Mr. 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. Tadda[1] gave 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.

         After 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 of days."

         On June 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.

         On June 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.

         An 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.

         On 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.

         On August 14, 2014, Mr. Rincon brought the vehicle, along with a copy of Owens' bill for the repairs performed, [2] to 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.

         From 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.

         At 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 ...

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