Fire risk on wheels

CarMax puts onus on customers to get defects repaired after purchase

The CarMax dealership in Roseville is advertising at least one recalled car for sale.

The CarMax dealership in Roseville is advertising at least one recalled car for sale.

Photo by Dylan Svoboda

Four years ago, Angela Davidson bought a used 2010 Dodge Ram from a CarMax in Irvine. Days later, Davidson learned the vehicle had been recalled more than a year prior due to a defect predisposing it to fire. After a quick fix at a local Chrysler dealership, Davidson and her family made their way to Las Vegas.

Halfway through the trip, the car burst into flames. The family escaped, but the fire burned several acres of the Mojave Desert. In spite of Chrysler’s faulty repair, Davidson places the bulk of the blame on CarMax for selling her what was supposed to be a “great quality car,” according to the company’s mission statement.

CarMax’s website shows that the company continues to sell used cars that are on official safety recall lists, including for having fire-causing defects, though consumers will only learn this if they look up the cars’ VIN numbers on recall sites. CarMax does provide customers with a written disclosure of the defects prior to a car’s sale. SN&R found three examples of cars that had been recalled specifically due to a fire risk for sale at CarMax’s South Sacramento dealership, among several other recalled cars for sale.

The company’s dealings may or may not be legal, depending on who’s asked and where the cars are sold. Currently, federal law prohibits dealers from renting out or selling new cars on recall lists—but doesn’t explicitly prohibit the sale of recalled used cars if the buyer is notified of the defect. Still, argues Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, state regulators do have avenues available to them if they want to restrict the sale of defective used automobiles.

“At the state level, there are regulatory provisions that arguably make CarMax’s actions with respect to the sale of an unrepaired recalled vehicle in violation of those parts of the code, which range from unfair or deceptive acts or practices and the fact that you can’t sell an unsafe car,” Levine said. “Not only do we need new laws, but some of the existing authorities can be brought in to reign in CarMax’s practices.”

Even if there are laws on the consumer’s side, Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, says the used car business is just not an enforcement priority for officials at the moment. Shahan said CarMax’s corporate influence and the reluctance from the California DMV, attorney general’s office and district attorneys up and down the state have allowed the company to continue selling recalled cars.

Federal law requires car manufacturers to provide consumers and dealerships with free, timely repairs to recalled cars. Yet, rather than take recalled vehicles to their respective manufacturers for fix-ups prior to sale, CarMax states that the car buyer is in a better position to take it to the car’s manufacturer for the free fix.

“Our experience shows us customers are in the best position to act on recall information directly with a manufacturer-authorized dealer,” said CarMax spokeswoman Catherine Gryp in an email. “We have found that dealers are often more likely to provide timely recall repair to customers rather than to a competitor, like CarMax, so we encourage customers to have recalls repaired at a manufacturer-authorized facility.”

Shahan speculated that the company’s reluctance to get the cars fixed themselves has to do with their motivation to get cars on and off their lots as quickly as possible.

“Their stock price is based on profit per unit and units sold,” Shahan told SN&R. “They don’t want to waste time taking it to the manufacturer, waiting for repair. They leave it to the buyer.”

There’s concern over whether the fact that used cars—and not new or rental cars—can be sold while on recall lists is discriminatory toward those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.

“Low- to moderate-income consumers are the ones who are buying these cars,” Shahan said. “If you can’t afford a new car, you still ought to get the same level of safety.”

Davidson said she felt targeted after she opted for the cheaper option in CarMax.

“Would the CEO of CarMax put his kid in the back seat of one of those cars?” Davidson asked. “I couldn’t go to a new dealer. It’s too expensive.”

Levine points to what happened to the Davidson family, as well as a 2013 fire near San Diego, which burned 7,000 acres, destroyed 22 homes and 66 vehicles after a defective 2009 Jeep caught fire, as examples of what could keep happening if state officials don’t step in.

“The state of California shouldn’t have to wait until an open recalled car is sold and someone dies or hits a school bus with a whole bunch of kids because of a defective vehicle before we figure out how to best regulate these practices,” Levine said. “Unfortunately, this is one of those circumstances where it’s going to take something tragic to grab people’s attention.”

The Used Car Safety Recall Repair Act, from Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, has stalled in the U.S. Senate for over a year. If passed, the bill would “require auto dealers to fix outstanding safety recalls before selling or leasing a used passenger motor vehicle.”

Until used car dealerships are required to repair recalled cars prior to sale, Shahan encourages mindfulness when doing business with used car dealerships.

“Always check the VIN number and read all the paperwork,” Shahan warned. Ω