A Virginia car dealer won a U.S. Supreme Court victory that weakens consumers' protection against lending law violations common in spot delivery cases.
In an 8-1 decision, the court said that disgruntled used-car buyer Bradley Nigh was entitled to no more than $1,000 in damages for a violation of the Truth in Lending Act by Koons Buick-Pontiac-GMC of Alexandria, Va. Lower courts had awarded Nigh $24,000.
Nigh argued that the dealer had violated the law by falsely listing a charge of $965 for a car alarm he did not order or receive. The jury awarded him about $24,000, which represented double the amount of the finance charges.
But Mike Field, president of the dealership, now known as Field Auto City, argued that the lending law had been obscured by various amendments over the years and that Congress never intended to remove the $1,000 cap on damages for wronged car buyers and other consumer borrowers.
Field was backed by the National Automobile Dealers Association, the American Bankers Association and other business groups, who argued that a ruling the other way would have opened the door to more than $1 billion in annual damages nationwide.
Consumer groups argued that $1,000 is not enough to deter shady dealers.
The 1968 Truth in Lending Act was intended to force details of loans into the open and allow consumers to better evaluate the cost of credit. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author of the opinion, said from the bench that "less-than-meticulous drafting" of an amendment to the law had caused confusion.
She said that rejecting Field's argument would have led to an absurd result -- caps on damages for bigger loans, such as mortgages, but nearly unlimited damages for car loans.
Nigh was 22 when he made a down payment on a 1997 Chevrolet Blazer. He signed a sales contract and drove the car home, thinking the deal was final. But then Nigh, of Fairfax, was told he would have to put down an additional $2,000 to get a loan.
Nigh tried to back out of the deal when the dealer called him back a third time and, according to Nigh, threatened to have him arrested for auto theft if he did not sign a different contract.