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Sprenger v. Trout

375 N.J. Super. 120, 866 A.2d 1035 (App. Div. 2005)

CONSUMER FRAUD ACT; AUTOMOBILES—The business of refabricating and customizing automobiles falls within the provisions of the Consumer Fraud Act which can apply to work done to vehicles that can only be driven off-road.

A customer brought his vehicle into a shop for customization and repair. After the shop did work on the vehicle, it rendered a final statement reflecting an amount that the customer claimed was beyond what was agreed to. When the customer did not pay the entire bill, the shop refused to return his vehicle until he paid the full balance. The customer sued, alleging the shop’s actions violated the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). The shop, in pertinent part, contended that 1) the auto repair regulations are not applicable to customizations done on a vehicle that cannot legally be driven on New Jersey highways; and 2) the customer had no standing to sue since he had unclean hands

The Appellate Division held that automotive repair regulations in the Administrative Code were designed to prevent a consumer from being given a final bill that far exceeds the expected cost of repairs. Thus, the shop violated the regulations by giving the customer a final statement without providing him with either a written estimate or a waiver of a written estimate. As to the shop’s defenses, the Court held that nowhere in New Jersey statute or automotive repair regulations is there a requirement that a motor vehicle be considered “roadworthy;” all that is required is that the vehicle be registered. In that regard, the customer provided the lower court with evidence that his vehicle was indeed registered with the Division of Motor Vehicles when the shop worked on it. Additionally, the Court held that the shop’s business of refabricating and customizing automobiles fell within the provisions of the Consumer Fraud Act which can apply to work done on vehicles that are used both on-road and off-road.

The shop’s unclean-hands defense was that the customer should not have been allowed to bring a CFA claim against it since there was evidence that the customer stole or converted from his employer the parts he gave the shop for installation. The Court held that unclean-hands is an equitable remedy that is not available as a defense to claims for money damages. Additionally, even if the customer did steal the parts from his employer, he would not be barred from recovery under the CFA against the shop: the unclean-hands allegation did not refer to a wrong committed by the customer against the shop. The fact that the customer continually brought more parts to the shop while it was customizing and repairing his vehicle may have induced the shop to continue the work, but it did not cause it to violate the CFA.

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