Ten years ago, Angie Yarber bought a used car from a Ford dealer. She paid $8,000 for a dark-green Probe and felt confident that she had made a sensible purchase. "I thought, OK, good car," she says.
A few months later, the car showed signs of engine trouble. When a friend who was a mechanic popped the hood, he could tell it wasn't the one that had rolled off the assembly line with the original body.
Yarber had purchased a rebuilt wreck. The dealership that sold her the car, Blue Springs Ford, had put the Probe back together after its previous owner was involved in a crash on Interstate 70.
Blue Springs Ford didn't tell Yarber of the Probe's past. Instead, she received a Carfax report showing a clean history.
Yarber recently testified in court against Blue Springs Ford. The plaintiffs in the case, Kimberly and Michael von David, sued the dealership for not disclosing that a Ford Ranger pickup they bought in 2002 had been damaged before they owned it.
After hearing the evidence, a Jackson County jury awarded the von Davids $171,520 in compensatory damages — and $1.75 million in punitive damages.
The Kansas City Star published a story about the verdict on March 2. People who read the story might have concluded the jury had lost its collective mind.
In the third paragraph of Randolph Heaster's story, the general manager of Blue Springs Ford, Bill Dimitras, called the punitive damages "outrageous." He promised an appeal.
While Dimitras acknowledged the dealership's mistake, he made it sound like an irregular occurrence. Heaster's story closed with Dimitras happily noting that Blue Springs Ford had received an award that Ford Motor Co. distributes to dealerships that score well in customer-satisfaction surveys.
On its face, Heaster's story, which he reported and wrote on a tight deadline, was factual and fair. Both sides had a chance to comment on the verdict. Heaster quoted Michael von David, who said he hoped the judgment would send a signal to other car dealers.
But a lot went unsaid in eight paragraphs.
A verdict that looks "outrageous" in the absence of other information seems entirely appropriate given Blue Springs Ford's history of passing off rebuilt wrecks as gently used vehicles. Seventeen years (nearly to the day) before the jury ruled in favor of the von Davids, a woman named Vicki Grabinksi bought a GMC Jimmy from Blue Springs Ford Wholesale Outlet. Eight days later, its engine was dead.
The dealership sold the GMC as "never wrecked." In fact, a body shop in Colby, Kansas, had rebuilt the vehicle after a previous owner flipped it on its roof.
Grabinski sued. A jury awarded her $217,835.
Kansas City lawyer Bernard Brown represented Grabinski and the von Davids. He has amassed a pile of evidence suggesting that what Blue Springs Ford calls mistakes deserves another name: consumer fraud.
Another one of Brown's clients sued Blue Springs Ford after winding up with a Mustang the dealership had sold to someone else as "not wrecked." Testimony revealed that Bob Balderston, the owner of Blue Springs Ford, had told the previous buyer that his wife had driven the Mustang until she decided she wanted something with an automatic transmission.
In fact, the Mustang had arrived at Blue Springs Ford on the back of a flatbed truck, in need of $16,000 in repairs.
Blue Springs Ford settled the case during trial for $450,000.
In the von David case, Brown introduced evidence relating to an Escort that Blue Springs Ford had sold to a couple in 2001. After the Escort began to misbehave, the couple tracked down the original owner, who informed them that his son had smashed it up. After Blue Springs Ford repaired the damage, the original owner, Patrick Tarrant, traded in the Escort. Tarrant thought the car should have been junked after the crash. Tarrant spoke with some authority, having worked on the assembly line at Ford's Claycomo plant for 30 years.
The jury in the von David case heard from witnesses who testified about 12 rebuilt wrecks that Blue Springs Ford had sold to unsuspecting buyers. Brown says he wanted to call more witnesses, but the judge set a limit.
Brown's opening statement in the von David case went for an hour and four minutes. "I've never talked that long in my life," he tells me.
Were the Star's readers apprised of Brown's scandalous tales? No. But there was room for mention of the Ford Motor Co.'s presentation of the President's Award — two years running!
The Star story annoyed Brown. He says he had spoken to Heaster and provided the reporter with background material. Brown calls the resulting story a "god-awful whitewash" and notes that Blue Springs Ford ran a half-page advertisement in the same issue of the paper.
Brown tells me he talked to Heaster about the story after it was published. Brown says Heaster told him that sections of the story he filed were missing from the published version. Brown says Heaster read him the passages, which included a reference to previous settlements and judgments against Blue Springs Ford.
Last week, I left a voice mail for Keith Chrostowski, the editor of the business section, and sent an e-mail to Heaster. Steve Rosen, an assistant editor, responded on behalf of both. Rosen edited the story. He also spoke with Brown after its publication.
"The one thing to point out we were just trying to get a daily story in on deadline," Rosen tells me. "As far as doing anything more exhaustive on the history of Blue Springs Ford, there just wasn't time to do that."
Rosen says the story was balanced. "As you know, rulings like this often have a tendency to be appealed, and the damages are often cut way back, and we'll write about that as well, when there is another ruling."
I get that — and I'll remember to watch for when the Star covers the ruling on any appeal.
As for Brown's whitewash claim, Rosen says: "We could have chosen not to run the story at all."
That's true, too. At the same time, the Star's coverage of Blue Springs Ford reminded me of another strangely vague story involving an industry that tends to buy a lot of advertising.
In 2006, the Star published a front-page story about the questionable workmanship in relatively new and expensive homes. In its initial paragraphs, the story described a subdivision in Johnson County where 58 of the 111 homes had wood rot or similar problems. The 2,000-word piece was oddly coy in places. The builder of the 111 homes went unnamed, as did the subdivision.
Paul Wenske, the former Star reporter who wrote the story, told me at the time that in the version he originally filed, he named the builder ("Developer Phobia," December 20, 2006). But an editor decided to remove a passage in which the builder, Tom French, and the residents of the Willowbrook subdivision in Overland Park traded blame.
The story's editor, Bob Lynn, told me that the "back and forth" between French and his buyers was not germane. It was a silly comment for him to make. "Back and forth" pretty much forms the basis of daily newspaper writing. A more likely explanation, in my view, was that Star editors wanted to soften the story's blow because homebuilders buy a lot of ads. (The housing bubble has since burst, but the "Sunday Homes" section endures.)
The Blue Springs Ford story wasn't nearly as incomplete as the homebuilder piece. At least in this case, the Star told readers which dealership had tried to put the rind back on a lemon.