Bill Heard Chevrolet served with state lawsuit
About 10,000 Georgia car owners received what appeared to be an alarming flier from General Motors last fall. "Urgent Potential Recall Notice," the mailing announced in large, bold type.
In fact, there was no recall. The flier wasn't even from GM. Instead, state regulators now say, it was the latest in a 16-year pattern of deceptive sales pitches by the largest car dealer based in Georgia: Bill Heard Chevrolet.
In a lawsuit filed Friday, the first of its kind in 32 years, the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs alleged the October mailing was intended to trick car owners into believing their vehicles were unsafe. Heard was trying to sell new cars or service plans on old autos, the lawsuit said.
The Columbus-based dealer disputes the suit's claim that any violation was "willful," J. Matthew Maguire, one of the dealer's lawyers, said Monday. Company executives admit the mailing was "not appropriate," he said, but contend the blame lies with an advertising firm.
In the past, the dealership has alleged that the agency selectively enforces the law in a way that benefits its competitors.
The lawsuit is the first filed by the consumer agency against a car dealer since 1975. The agency — long criticized for tepid enforcement of Georgia's consumer protection laws — hasn't sued anyone in seven years.
The overwhelming majority of complaints to the agency result in a relatively small fine and a promise by the accused firm to stop using deceptive trade practices.
Bill Heard has made 15 such promises in the past 16 years, according to the suit.
In five cases, it paid fines and administrative penalties totaling $279,000. No other company has paid more, the consumer agency says.
The agency's lawsuit proposes civil fines of $5,000 for each of the mailings, or a theoretical maximum of as much as $50 million. It also seeks a judge's approval to bring future allegations directly into court, bypassing the administrative process.
( Collapse )