An arbitrator awarded $261,596 to a Meriden woman who sued an independent car dealer for breach of contract on arguments it pressured and deceived her into signing a second contract with provisions she hadn’t agreed to, and at a higher percentage rate.
In his scathing five-page ruling, which was emailed to both parties Wednesday, Springfield, Massachusetts-based arbitrator Paul Nicolai said he was awarding much more than plaintiff Rebecca Murillo had requested to send a message.
Nicolai, president of the Nicolai Law Group, wrote that he was awarding $234,708 in punitive damages, or 25 times the amount he was awarding in actual and statutory damages against Naugatuck-based A Better Way Wholesale Autos, “to discourage violation of its statutes and to hopefully, finally dissuade respondent … from its method of business.”
In his decision, Nicolai noted there had been several prior arbitration awards and court decisions issued against the company.
Plaintiff counsel Dan Blinn had 39 previous claims leveled against the company, which bills itself as New England’s highest-volume independent dealer. Of these cases, 21 are closed and 18 are active. Almost all, he said, went in his favor, many resulting in awards of judgment. But the Nicolai award is by far the highest against A Better Way, according Blinn, managing attorney for Rocky Hill-based Consumer Law Group.
Blinn was seeking just $13,437 in punitive damages for his client.
Murillo finalized paperwork on a 2008 Lexus IS-250 in February 2017. The car’s total cost was $9,880, so Murillo put down $5,000 as a down payment to seal the deal on a loan at an annual percentage rate of 13 percent.
But soon after, Blinn said, Murillo received a call from A Better Way saying there was a problem with her credit application and that the bank didn’t want to finance the loan. Murillo, Blinn said, was then told the dealership would be able to obtain financing with a different lender, but for 19 percent interest. When Murillo asked for a return of her down payment, she was told she’d only be able to get $3,000 of the $5,000. Felling pressured and not wanting to lose $2,000, Blinn said Murillo agreed to the second contract.
Blinn said that second contract included items Murillo was not told she’d be charged for, including oil changes for life at $399, a tires-and-wheels contract for $599, a service contract for $1,995 and a dealer conveyance fee of $598.
The lawsuit, filed November 2017, said Murillo “had not requested them, and did not desire them.” The lawsuit alleged numerous violations, including of The Truth In Lending Act and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Ridgefield-based attorney Kenneth Votre represents A Better Way dealership. He did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
The company could petition the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut to vacate the award.
John Gorbecki, owner of A Better Way, told the Connecticut Law Tribune Thursday: “We are in the right and we will fight it and we will protest it. We disagree with the decision. We are a 20-year-old company and we do a really good job of following Connecticut regulations, and we sell a lot of vehicles.”
Blinn said Nicolai’s decision “is an important one.”
“We are still receiving calls from many consumers describing the same conduct,” Blinn said. “The arbitrator’s goal, I believe, was to set a deterrent for this company to reconsider its business practices. I hope that is the result of this case.”