Agency Veils Auto Repair Dispute Data

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Los Angeles Times

The state agency that regulates auto repair shops said Friday it has stopped disclosing violations and public complaints against mechanics in response to allegations that the information was being used in frivolous civil lawsuits.

Until now, the Bureau of Automotive Repair posted on its Web site the problems its inspectors found at repair shops, as well as the complaints that prompted the notices. But the agency has removed that information and has temporarily stopped issuing violation notices.

Consumer groups expressed alarm, saying the decision will deprive the public of information about past problems.

“It’s pretty outrageous that public disclosure would disappear,” said Jamie Court, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. “It’s unfathomable to me that disclosure would be out because of a few bugs in the bath water.”

The violation notices and other data on the bureau’s Web site were used by a Beverly Hills law firm as the basis for more than 2,000 lawsuits filed last year against California auto repair shops. The State Bar of California is investigating the firm, which has been accused by mechanics of using the bureau’s information to gain out-of-court settlements.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer’s office asked for the probe, likening some of the law firm’s tactics to extortion.

The Trevor Law Group, which filed the suits, says its goal is to protect the public from fraud, and its attorneys deny they pressure small-business owners for settlements.

Glenn Mason, a spokesman for the Bureau of Automotive Repair, said officials need time to decide how best to disclose information to the public. The types of violations written by inspectors include faults such as failing to have business licenses or performing repairs not authorized by the customer. Mason said he was unsure when inspections would resume.

“We’re studying it, taking a look at the issues that were raised,” he said. “Our concern was the information was being used for something that we didn’t intend. We want to supply the public with as much information as possible so they can make an informed choice.”

The bureau decided to stop disclosing the data after one auto repair business, Irvine-based Caliber Collision, sued the state, saying it was unfair to publicly post the violations. That case is pending.

Michael Camunez, the attorney representing Caliber, said mechanics are not given the opportunity to defend themselves against the accusations posted on the bureau’s Web site.

“This isn’t about trying to hide anything from consumers,” Camunez said. “The issue here is that the accused should have the opportunity to defend themselves before you go public and label somebody a fraud.”

The suits against the auto mechanics were filed under the state’s Unfair Competition Law, which forbids such practices as false advertising and price-fixing. The law permits people to sue businesses even if they have not been personally harmed.

The suits have prompted a push by legislators to amend the act. But even backers of that effort questioned the logic of withholding data.

“I’m not sure that depriving the public of information is the best way to go,” said John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Assn. of California, a tort-reform group lobbying to change the state’s Unfair Competition Law.

Consumer Watchdog
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