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Some Sense, Logic Crucial To Good Fight

Sun., March 24, 1996

I’ve made a career out of going to bat for the underdog.

Once in awhile, though, an underdog needs a little common sense batted into them.

Such is the case with Chris Harrington’s 18-month quest for automotive justice.

The Spokane woman wrote me a letter the other day, chronicling the sad saga of her kaput Volkswagen engine. She hoped “some press” would “help us with our appeal.”

After wading through a chunk of the 450 pages of documents, I agree this case deserves some ink - but not the kind she’ll appreciate.

Her lawsuit against Coeur d’Alene-based Ponderosa Motors is a fruitless legal marathon that only makes the court system more bogged down, expensive and inefficient.

That it was filed by Harrington’s elderly father, a retired attorney, could be the only reason it was filed at all. Who else but a dad would spend so much time on a loser case like this?

“I feel it was frivolous,” says Ponderosa’s tough-minded owner, Deborah Loy, who refused to roll over and settle. “This is the most absurd reality I have ever dealt with. I had to make a stand.”

After all the maneuvering, the Harrington case was tossed out of Spokane County Superior Court recently on a motion for summary judgment. Another judge ordered the Harringtons to pay Ponderosa’s $2,300 legal fees, which Chris finds particularly unjust.

“So to make this story short,” she writes, “we paid to get our engine repaired, we paid again to get our engine repaired, and now we’re paying for the attorney for the company that sold us the defective engine.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s what really happened: In the summer of 1993, the Harringtons hired a Spokane mechanic to put a factory rebuilt VW engine in their 1985 van. The mechanic bought one for about $2,000 through a Moses Lake parts store owned by Ponderosa.

The engine was installed by the Harrington’s mechanic. The van ran fine until it went belly up the following summer.

But get this: The motor ran 15 months and 15,000 miles, exceeding its 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty from the VW factory.

“Had the plaintiff wanted longer protection, there was a simple solution,” testified Chief Parker, a senior American Automobile Association supervisor, in an affidavit. “That would have been to buy a new motor.”

New motors carry a five-year, 50,000-mile warranty, but also cost twice as much.

Even though the motor fulfilled its legal obligation, the Harringtons contended its failure was due to a “defective and negligent factory assembly.”

It’s easy to appreciate the Harringtons’ situation. They have four kids and the van broke down for the first time not long after husband Roy lost his job.

But if the couple had a beef, it was with Volkswagen, not the car dealer. The Ponderosa employees were strictly middlemen, they never even opened the box when they handed it over to the Harringtons’ mechanic.

Still, they stubbornly persisted in going after the dealership, losing at every turn.

“We’re just a link in the chain,” says Rick Hayden, Ponderosa’s attorney. From the beginning, he warned the Harringtons their case was groundless and that he would try to recover his legal fees from them.

“This case,” adds Hayden, “could have been solved with a letter to Volkswagen.”

How true. According to Harrington, her father finally wrote Volkswagen on Nov. 29. On Jan. 3, the company sent the Harringtons a check for $1,928.03.

In other words, the court case against Ponderosa was a monumental waste of time. Now the Harringtons - should their appeal go down in flames - will have to pay more in legal fees than they got back from Volkswagen.

Just because you’re an underdog doesn’t mean you’re right.

, DataTimes

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