Dozens of the complaints found online, through state agencies and to the Troubleshooters ring to a similar tune: Several people say the cars they purchased through A Better Way Autos had safety issues within days of driving off the lot.
The business advertises itself as Connecticut’s highest-volume used car dealership, working with more than 240,000 customers every year. They’ve closed 88 Better Business Bureau complaints in three years, giving them a “B” rating.
In 2014, Dominica Young paid 15,000 dollars on a Mercedes E-500 from A Better Way. She says she almost immediately started hearing a loud banging noise, and decided to bring her car to two independent mechanics.
They told her the car was unsafe to drive. It had a broken sub-frame, and some repairs were fixed with incompatible, aftermarket parts.
“That was supposed to be my dream car,” said Young.
A Better Way Owner Joe Gorbecki told us Young’s car was inspected six times by technicians from four different entities.
“We are confident that her car was safe when it left our facility and we cannot be held accountable for physical damage done to a vehicle once it leaves our facility,” said Gorbecki, in an email. “We do everything we can to be certain that every single car we deliver is safe and will meet reasonable expectations.”
Young’s car now sits in her garage.
“I haven’t been able to enjoy the car at all because it’s too expensive to fix and no one wants to fix it,” said Young.
Like Young, James Saint Paul also spent 15,000 dollars on his Toyota Sienna. He found engine problems two days after bringing it home.
He thought he was covered by insurance he purchased with the car. Turns out, he wasn’t.
He said A Better Way told him in order to get approved for financing, he had to sign up for extra services—the 2,500 dollar gap insurance and 500 dollars for lifetime oil changes.
His contract later showed 1,500 dollars for the lifetime oil changes. A Better Way denies the implication that this was mandatory.
“I know I signed for 500 dollars, at least for the oil change, not 1,500,” said Saint Paul. “There was no reason for me to spend 1,500 dollars for two years to change oil.”
Both Young and Saint Paul’s stories resonate with dozens of people in Connecticut.
In a complaint to the Attorney General, one woman says she drove her Tahoe for just three weeks before having to take it in indefinitely.
“I’m not asking for a brand new car,” she wrote in the complaint. “I’m asking for my car to be safe and to be able to be driven.”
And in an email, one viewer told the Troubleshooters she had to trade her car in, taking a 5,800 dollar loss.
“There’s no winning, there’s no compromising,” said Young. “You can’t compromise. You have to seek for damages, and that’s what I intend to do.”
But Young and every other A Better Way customer cannot sue in court. A clause in their contracts says, “We may choose to have any dispute decided by arbitration.”
In arbitration, complainants don’t face a judge or a jury. Instead, they see a third party arbitrator who hears both sides and makes a decision behind closed doors. Compared to the courts, that decisions is much harder to appeal.
A Better Way says they support arbitration to keep the legal fees down, a sentiment that resonates with many companies—most credit card companies and cell phone carriers have the same clause.
Washington lawmakers are keeping an eye on arbitration’s growing popularity. On February 4, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy proposed a bill that, if passed, would only be allowed if both parties agreed to it after the consumer filed a complaint.
Attorney Dan Blinn represents 12 clients facing arbitration, including Young and Saint Paul.
“You should see the expression on some of my client’s faces when I explain to them that when they went to buy a car, they signed away their right to go to court,” said Blinn.
Both Young and Saint Paul say they would have never signed their contracts had they known about arbitration.
In hindsight and with their cases both still pending, the lesson is in the fine print.
“Consumers should check these cars out, and they should make sure that all promises are given to them in writing,” said Blinn. “And they should check over their contracts very carefully before they sign.”