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.