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Continued: Car deal stalls over price dispute

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 18, 2010 - 9:26 AM

In October, Tammie Townsend got a great deal on a used car. Walser Chrysler of Hopkins sold her a 2007 Chrysler Pacifica for $11,639, or about $6,000 below its Blue Book value.

Now she's too nervous to drive it. Her financing was revoked, two repo men showed up at her house and the dealership filed a lawsuit against her, claiming she knew the deal was too good to be true.

Walser Chrysler says it made an "administrative error" when it sold the crossover wagon to Townsend for less than what the dealership thinks it's worth. Instead of accepting the loss, the dealership blames Townsend, saying she should have spoken up before accepting an unintentional discount on the car she'd been leasing for two years.

Townsend can't believe she's been accused of hoodwinking a car dealer over the price of a car. She said she didn't know she'd gotten such a bargain until the dealership told her of its blunder, but she wants them to honor the terms of the contract it signed.

"You can't sell someone something and then come back and say, 'Whoops, I made a mistake. You have to pay more,'" said Townsend, 40, a hairstylist who lives in Golden Valley.

Walser Chrysler doesn't see it that way. In its lawsuit, delivered to Townsend's door on Monday, the dealership accused her of fraud and unjust enrichment. Under her 2007 lease with the dealership, she had the right to buy the car for $18,505.

"She was told several times what the [correct] price was," said Doug Sprinthall, vehicle operations director for Walser Automotive Group. "We made a clerical error."

In fact, Sprinthall said, the dealership would have reimbursed Townsend if it had accidentally overcharged her.

Townsend locked the Pacifica in a friend's garage because she's convinced the dealership will do whatever it can to get it back. Her husband, Greg, recently became unemployed, but in terms of stress, the struggle over the Pacifica is "worse than losing my job," he said.

Until recently, Townsend was one of the dealership's satisfied customers. She bought a Jeep Liberty from Walser Chrysler in 2005 and she's routinely brought her vehicles to the dealership for service.

She decided to lease the Pacifica in 2007 because she needed more room for carting around her two children and their friends. Her lease payment was $366 a month. When she decided to talk to a salesman about buying the vehicle in October, her main concern was keeping her monthly payment below $350. So she was "pleasantly surprised" when the salesman said she could purchase the vehicle for $316.91 a month with dealer-arranged financing. She even agreed to fork out for a few extras, including $1,973 for an extended warranty and $799 for undercoating. On her way out the door, the finance manager told her "You're getting a great deal," Townsend recalled.

Two weeks later, a Walser Chrysler salesman called with a surprising request. He wanted her to come in and redo her paperwork, which would increase her cost $7,000. She declined. General manager Kevin Webb followed up with a letter on Nov. 6, threatening legal action if she didn't either return the vehicle or come up with the extra cash.

Instead, Townsend hired a lawyer. On Nov. 16, she made her first scheduled payment on the vehicle. But the bank returned the check, notifying her that the loan had been paid off by the dealership, according to David Knodell, Townsend's attorney.

In January, two men showed up at Townsend's house about 8 p.m. while she was watching TV with her kids. They wanted to take the Pacifica. "I said, 'No, you're not,'" Townsend said.

Townsend shouldn't have to worry about a repeat visit. After being contacted by Whistleblower, Sprinthall said the dealership would give Townsend a conditional permit so she can drive the vehicle until the dispute is resolved.

"Honestly, it's a crappy situation,'' Sprinthall said.

While Walser Chrysler is demanding that Townsend pay the full option price on her vehicle, Sprinthall acknowledged that the dealership sometimes cuts the price for buyers. He claimed the dealership recorded Townsend agreeing to pay the full option price of $18,505, but Townsend's contract specifically states that her deal supersedes "any verbal agreement" or other contract.

"This is clearly a situation where we don't want the customer to go through," Sprinthall said. "It's not our normal course of doing business."

Knodell called the dealership's actions "harassment" and its legal argument "complete bupkus."

The squabble over the Pacifica has also attracted the attention of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Driver and Vehicle Services, which requires the fees from any vehicle transfer to be submitted within 10 days of the transaction. As of Jan. 5, that hadn't happened, said department spokesperson Kristine Chapin.

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