Driving a hard bargain: A Fiat Chrysler discount will cost your right to sue

Each of Detroit's Big Three automakers offer a discount on new vehicles for employees, their families and friends.

But only one, Fiat Chrysler, requires that those using the discount give up their constitutional right to a jury trial in return for a few hundred bucks in savings.

"It's like they're doing you a favor and, by the way, they're taking away your right to sue," said Rosemary Shahan, president of the Sacramento advocacy group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. "This discount is like the piece of cheese on the trap that kills the mouse."

Fiat Chrysler defends the arbitration clause in its "friends and family" discount by saying employees and their family members are unlikely to sue the company and, in any case, the program isn't intended for the general public.

"The purpose of this discount isn't to trick people into not being able to litigate against us," said Rick Deneau, a Fiat Chrysler spokesman. "We weren't trying to figure out some diabolical way for people not to sue us."

Nevertheless, at least some dealers are using the discount as a sales tool and thus stripping customers of their right to take the carmaker to court.

Jeremy Williams, a salesman at Motor Village LA, a Chrysler dealer near downtown L.A., said he's never provided an employee discount to a customer, "but it's definitely possible."

"If a dealer really wants to sell a car, it's not difficult" to arrange such a discount, he said.

Steve Lehto, a Michigan lawyer, told me that nearly a dozen of his clients are neither Fiat Chrysler workers nor acquainted with anyone who is, yet they were able to secure the carmaker's discount from dealers.

"In each case, the dealer said they could lower the price of the car by about 1% with a discount from the carmaker, and gave the person a form to sign," he said. "That form included the arbitration clause."

Lehto shared with me a Chrysler Group Employee Advantage form signed by one of his clients in which a $258 discount was offered for leasing a $25,725 Jeep Cherokee. The discount lowered the monthly cost.

The fine print of the form said that in return for the discount, the buyer "will not be able to bring a lawsuit for any warranty disputes relating to this vehicle" and will instead agree to "mandatory arbitration."

Lehto said Fiat Chrysler's lawyers told him his clients' lawsuits were invalid because they'd agreed to the arbitration provision.

Such clauses in consumer contracts aren't new. If you have a cellphone, a cable line or a credit card, you've almost certainly agreed to waive your right to sue or join a class-action lawsuit as a condition of service.

But until now, experts say, no major car manufacturer has sought to encourage customers to forgo their right to sue.

"This takes everything to a whole new level," said Hal Rosner, one of California's top lawyers specializing in auto-fraud cases.

Neither General Motors nor Ford include an arbitration clause with their discount programs, representatives of each company said.

Fiat Chrysler says this is all much ado about nothing.

"It's a special discount for employees and close friends," Deneau said. "That's all it is."

Many large businesses prefer arbitration because settlements are limited and because professional arbitrators often favor the corporate side. Arbitrators' fees are typically paid by the company in a dispute.

A 2007 report by Public Citizen found that over a four-year period, arbitrators ruled in favor of banks and credit card companies 94% of the time in disputes with California consumers.

It's pretty clear why a carmaker would want to steer customers away from the court system and into binding arbitration.

Toyota paid more than $1 billion in 2013 to settle a class-action lawsuit involving unintended sudden acceleration by its vehicles. The company also agreed to pay a record $1.2 billion last year to settle a four-year criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Last month, General Motors said it would pay at least $575 million to settle civil lawsuits over faulty ignition switches that were involved in at least 124 deaths. It also will pay $900 million to settle a criminal investigation.

Volkswagen now faces dozens of lawsuits for cheating on emissions tests. Its legal costs could run into the billions of dollars.

Fiat Chrysler's arbitration clause specifies that "the Federal Arbitration Act shall govern the interpretation and enforcement of this agreement." This is important.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that any business can require arbitration and prohibit class-action lawsuits if the company complies with the terms of the federal law.

"That means the Federal Arbitration Act trumps all state laws, including California's Lemon Law," said Rosner, who is based in San Diego.

The state's Lemon Law is intended to protect buyers of new cars from being stuck with a defective vehicle. It encourages arbitration to settle disputes, but still allows the consumer to sue if he or she is dissatisfied with the arbitrator's decision.

Under binding arbitration as defined by the federal law, the arbitrator's decision stands. No lawsuit is possible.

"It's outrageous that any carmaker would make customers agree to binding arbitration," said Deborah Horowitz, a San Diego lawyer specializing in Lemon Law cases. "I've never seen anything like it."

Many businesses offer special deals to employees and others. Los Angeles Times employees, for example, receive a discount on their subscriptions to the paper.

Michael Palese, another Fiat Chrysler spokesman, said the company's "friends and family" discounts typically run between 1% and 5% of the cost of a vehicle.

He said that if someone doesn't want to give up the right to sue, they don't have to accept the discount. "No one's holding a gun to your head," Palese said.

He also disputed the notion that dealers have easy access to the discounts and are able to use them as a sales tool.

"Is there a possibility that could happen? I suppose it could," Palese said. "But it's not supposed to happen."

Lehto, the Michigan lawyer, countered that "it's a very well-known fact that you can walk into a dealership and ask for an employee discount, and they'll find one."

Palese said Fiat Chrysler includes an arbitration clause with its discount because "arbitration is often a less expensive avenue to resolve issues."

For the company, that is.

Anyone would appreciate a lower price when haggling for a new car. But Fiat Chrysler's discount illustrates the importance of reading all paperwork carefully.

Otherwise, you may be giving up much more than you're getting.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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