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After a five-year legal battle with Coral Cadillac, James Stephens says he feels vindicated by a jury’s finding that the luxury car dealer committed fraud when it sold him a car as “new” that had been involved in a front-end collision. But Stephens, an executive with Avery Development Co. in Pompano Beach, Fla., won’t see a penny of the $150,000 verdict he won in December unless the verdict is upheld by the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, Fla., where the case is pending. Meanwhile, he continues to pay $400 a month to store the 1996 Cadillac Seville SPS as evidence, plus insurance. He contends that the Pompano Beach dealership sold the vehicle to him as new and undamaged when it actually had been involved in a serious accident. “It’s not a principle thing, I just want to be made whole,” says Stephens, who was recently elected chairman of the board of Easter Seals in Broward County. “All they did was deny and fight me.” Coral Cadillac managers did not return calls from the Miami Daily Business Review. The dealership’s attorney, Ken Bednar, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., declined to comment on the case until he could consult with his client. Such lawsuits are hardly unusual, says Matthew Weissing of the Weissing Law Firm in Fort Lauderdale, who specializes in suing auto dealers for fraud. “There are a ton of these things going on,” Weissing says. “I’ve had some very egregious cases.” In fact, Jack Norris, Fort Lauderdale-based chief of the multistate litigation division of the Florida attorney general’s office, said his office “could spend all our time doing automobile dealers.” Despite legislation passed to protect consumers from bad leasing deals, the attorney general’s office still gets a multitude of complaints about car dealers, said Norris. The latest scam, he says: dealers promising one interest rate and then, once the customer trades his or her car in, upping the price, saying they were unable to get a lender at that interest rate. It’s called spot delivery. “People just don’t read their contracts,” said Norris. Weissing says he started specializing in auto fraud 1994, when he won a $277,000 verdict against a Fort Lauderdale Ford dealer for selling a Broward sheriff’s deputy a “new” truck that had been stolen, wrecked and repaired. He has sued a total of six Fort Lauderdale dealerships. But few lawyers are willing to take such cases because they’re hard to prove, Weissing says. “Usually you’re dealing with an unsophisticated purchaser who signs a lot of documents,” he says. “[The dealers] build a lot of things into these documents.” For example, the contracts often require disgruntled buyers to go through arbitration rather than sue. And the arbitration panels are usually set up by the auto industry, he says. TWO SHADES OF BLACK Stephens’ fight began in 1996, when he handed Coral Cadillac a check for $30,541 for the black Seville SPS he allegedly was told was a “demo” and had only been driven by sales staff. Stephens claimed in legal papers that his contract stated the car was “new” and that he had to pay a “luxury tax” that new car buyers must pay. The deal also included a trade-in by Stephens. The vehicle was the 10th Cadillac Stephens had owned but the first he had bought from Coral. Stephens claims he asked salesman George Clark if the car had ever been damaged while being used as a demo. According to the suit, Clark answered no, pointing to a scratch on the paint as the only flaw. But Stephens said he soon discovered otherwise. First he noticed that the car was painted two different shades of black. Then he noticed a whistling from the windshield while he was driving, and that the rearview mirror fell off whenever he left the car parked in the sunshine. Additionally, he claimed, the dashboard was “misconfigured,” and he discovered bent metal in the doorframes. Stephens said in an interview and his lawsuit that he repeatedly tried to speak to Coral sales manager Cal Sharpe and owner Christian Berian to request an exchange, but that they refused to speak to him. Clark continued to deny that the car had ever been involved in an accident. Stephens filed suit against Coral in 1997, alleging three counts: fraud in the inducement, negligent misrepresentation and deceptive and unfair trade practices. Stephens and his attorney, Sam Hill, a partner at Hill & Lemongello in Fort Lauderdale, spared no expense, hiring an accident reconstruction engineer and putting several Coral employees on the stand. After a four-day trial, jurors deliberated for just 20 minutes before awarding Stephens $12,500 in compensatory damages and $133,050 in punitive damages. NOT THE FIRST TO SUE Stephens was not the first customer to sue Coral Cadillac. In 1999, Ann McCall of Lauderhill, Fla., sued the dealership for allegedly failing to fully credit her for two trade-ins that were part of a new vehicle lease agreement. McCall claimed that she met with Coral sales manager Sharpe in 1995 and told him her husband recently had died and that she wanted to trade in two cars and purchase a new one. According to the suit, Sharpe instead persuaded her to lease a 1996 Cadillac Seville. He told her she would be given $6,300 credit for the 1994 Acura Legend and $9,000 credit for the 1989 Seville she was trading in. According to the lawsuit, McCall later learned that she was never given the $6,300 credit for the Acura. McCall and her attorney, Weissing, sued Coral for fraud in the inducement and deceptive and unfair trade practice. Coral settled with McCall, Weissing says. But due to a confidentiality agreement, he declined to disclose the amount of the settlement. Weissing says Stephens is a rarity — someone who is willing and able to persevere through a long court battle with an auto dealer. “Jim Stephens has the financial wherewithal to stand toe to toe with the car dealers,” says Weissing, who briefly represented Stephens in his case. “Few do.” Stephens estimates he has paid “tens of thousands” in attorney fees and $30,000 in expert witnesses — and still hopes to be reimbursed someday. Meanwhile, he’s given up Cadillacs. He now drives a Mercedes.

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