Consumers, beware: Used car dealers are selling vehicles despite open recalls
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In October 2016, Corey Jackson was at a used car lot in South Chicago Heights, signing the papers to buy a 2008 Buick LaCrosse.
He was excited about the leather interior, sunroof and heated seats — but he didn’t know that the used car was the subject of a safety recall because of problems with an ignition switch defect already implicated in 124 deaths nationwide.
The used car salesperson didn’t mention the recall, Jackson says.
And because the Markham man bought the car used, he never got a notice from the manufacturer, General Motors.
Seven months later, on May 16, 2017, Jackson was driving home from work at WeatherTech, the car floor liner manufacturer, when he tried to pass a car on Bluff Road in Lockport Township. He sped up but quickly abandoned the attempt because another car was coming toward him from the opposite direction on the two-lane road. Suddenly, his car veered off the road and onto the grass, crashing into a tree.
The ignition switch had failed, Jackson’s attorneys say, suddenly shutting off the engine and cutting power to the steering wheel, brakes and airbags.
Jackson was knocked unconscious in the crash. He was wearing a seat belt. But, with no inflated airbag, he slammed into the steering wheel. He lost several teeth and broke his jaw. The 37-year-old still walks with a limp from injuries to his hip and a knee and a broken ankle.
Now, Jackson is suing GM and the dealer that sold him the car, FJH Cars Inc. of South Chicago Heights, blaming them for putting him in harm’s way with a defective car that was under recall the day he bought it.
“Nothing was said, nothing about a recall,” Jackson says. “You feel deceived.”
Jackson’s crash highlights what consumer advocates say is a glaring problem with the nation’s automotive recall system: While car dealers can’t legally sell new cars that are subject to an open recall, and car rental companies can’t legally rent vehicles with open recalls, there’s nothing in the law to stop used car dealers from putting them out on the road.
Online sales listings for used vehicles with open safety recalls are common in the Chicago area, the Chicago Sun-Times found. By running the vehicle identification numbers — VINs — from the dealers’ websites through a federal government search tool, the Sun-Times found open recalls for vehicles being offered for sale including:
• A 2011 Ford Fusion S with an open recall for a defective Takata airbag inflator that can rupture and spray pieces of metal inside the car.
• A 2017 Dodge RAM 1500 Big Horn truck with open recalls for a software issue that can cause sudden acceleration without warning and a tailgate latch system problem that can cause it to flip open while driving.
• A 2015 Hyundai Sonata with an open recall for a sunroof panel that can detach while driving.
• A 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt LS with an open recall for the same ignition switch problem Corey Jackson’s car had.
Rosemary Shahan, founder and president of the nonprofit organization Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, says there’s something wrong that no federal law is in place to prevent used cars that are under safety recalls from being sold. Shahan says used car dealers could easily check a car’s recall status, “but they don’t do that. They just go ahead and sell it anyway.”
And she says, “Most people just assume that, of course, the dealer’s fixed the recall first.”
Safety recalls are issued when vehicles don’t meet safety standards or have been found to have a safety defect, which frequently isn’t spotted until consumer complaints pile up with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most recalls are undertaken voluntarily by manufacturers with NHTSA oversight.
Once a recall is announced, the manufacturer is responsible for tracing and contacting owners of the affected vehicles.
Consumers can then take the cars in for free repairs at any authorized dealer.
Since the recall system was created in 1966, NHTSA has issued recalls over safety issues for more than 390 million vehicles.
Yet Carfax, the vehicle history service that lets consumers track a car’s background, estimates that more than 57 million vehicles are on the road today with open, unaddressed recalls.
Many are like Corey Jackson’s car — used vehicles that were sold and resold but never repaired.
“It’s an absolute shame,” says Michael Serra, one of the lawyers working on Jackson’s case. “It’s a betrayal when companies put profits over safety.”
A GM spokesman declined to comment on Jackson’s lawsuit but says that “GM has significantly improved the integrity of product recalls, reducing the number of recalls and increasing the completion rates of those that do occur.”
Efforts to reach the owner of FJH Cars Inc., now closed, were not successful.
The Sun-Times’ spot check of online used car listings found vehicles with open recalls being sold by two of the nation’s best-known used car sellers: CarMax and AutoNation.
Unlike some sellers that don’t provide any information about recalls online, CarMax and AutoNation include links in their sales listings to NHTSA’s SaferCar.gov website and its recall lookup tool. (In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission settled cases with CarMax and several other sellers requiring them to conspicuously disclose that cars may have open recalls.)
A CarMax spokeswoman said the company requires its salespeople to check for recalls and share that with buyers before they sign any sales paperwork and have each customer sign a document acknowledging this.
CarMax says it makes more sense for customers to address open recalls on their own by getting a free fix at an authorized dealer. If CarMax — a competitor to authorized dealers — tried to do that, the company contends that its repair requests would be put at the back of the line at dealer shops.
In 2015, AutoNation, the country’s largest dealership chain, announced it would stop selling used cars with open recalls. The announcement was cheered by consumer advocates.
But the company rescinded its pledge a year and a half later after struggling to find enough parts to address the widespread Takata airbag recalls and seeing that other used car sellers weren’t following suit.
Asked for comment, AutoNation declined.
In an Automotive News article published shortly after the 2016 presidential election, AutoNation’s CEO, Mike Jackson, was quoted as saying that, with Donald Trump as president, there was “no way that that issue is going to be addressed from a regulatory point of view.”
The National Independent Automobile Dealers Association, an industry group for used car sellers, says parts shortages can make it impossible to get a quick fix for certain recalls. The group’s spokesman says it advises members to check for recalls and disclose that information to consumers, but it opposes any rules that would force used car dealers to fix recalls before selling a vehicle.
Automotive expert Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies Inc. says the result is that unfixed vehicles with serious safety defects get put back on the road.
Kane says consumers can’t be expected to do VIN checks themselves, especially when some dealers tout their own multipoint inspection reports and leave recalls out of the conversation. That sends a “mixed message” that can minimize the importance of recalls, according to Kane, who says consumers think that, “if they can sell the car to you, it can’t be that bad.”
In some cases, people have been killed or injured in cars they didn’t know were under recall. The 2004 crash deaths of two California sisters, Jacqueline and Raechel Houck, ages 20 and 24, in a rented Chrysler PT Cruiser that was under recall led to a 2016 federal law requiring rental car companies to take recalled vehicles out of service until they are repaired.
Legislation that would have imposed similar requirements on used cars was introduced in 2017 by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, but failed under pressure from industry.
Schakowsky says she plans to try again to get a federal law passed.
“The best thing we can do to get recalled cars off the road is fix the problem before the car is on the road,” Schakowsky says. “It’s already illegal to sell a new car or offer for rent a car under recall. Used car buyers must have the simple assurances that known defects have been fixed before you drive the car off the lot.”
Some consumers have fared better in state courts, where they can sue under state laws that more broadly address the sale of defective products.
Corey Jackson, who couldn’t work after his accident yet still owed payments on the totaled Buick, says he wishes his recalled car had never been put out for sale.
“It cost me my lifestyle, my job — damn near my life,” Jackson says. “Just value the person and not just the sale.”