Sunday, April 06, 2014
Faulty car leaves owners in the "lurch," ethically speaking
Often readers face a quandary about doing the right thing when they know doing so could cost them financially. A reader from the Midwest is caught in just such a quandary.
The reader's wife recently settled a breach-of-warranty lawsuit against a car manufacturer. The suit was based on the fact that her car lurched forward when coming to a stop, something that happened often but not always.
The first time the reader's wife experienced the problem was more than a year after she bought the car. That first lurch nearly caused a collision. After that, she learned to leave extra room before coming to a stop and pressing firmly on the car's brake.
Eventually, this practice stopped working. In the fall of 2012, when the reader was driving his wife's car, the vehicle leaped forward into a cross street when the reader tried to stop at an intersection.
He parked the car in the driveway at home and neither he nor his wife drove it for more than a year as she was working to settle her breach-of-warranty suit against the manufacturer.
Ultimately, the reader received a settlement, but the amount was smaller than she might have received had she considered selling the lurching vehicle to a dealer. She received $8,000 from the manufacturer, about half of which will be left after her lawyers take their share of the spoils.
"Our fear was that if we returned the car to the (original) dealer," the reader writes, "they would sell it to some innocent buyer who might then get into an accident."
The couple plans to make a last-ditch attempt to fix the car so the lurching is gone once and for all.
"If that doesn't work, we will need to dispose of it somehow," writes the reader, "possibly by selling it privately with a written disclosure of the car's history, or by junking the car altogether."
They don't "want the possibility of an accident on their consciences." They point out, however, that three acquaintances, all lawyers, have suggested that the couple simply sell the car to a dealer and be done with it.
"They say that what happens after that is not our problem. What do you think?"
From a strictly legal standpoint -- keeping in mind that I am not a lawyer - the couple's lawyer acquaintances are likely correct.
But fobbing off responsibility onto a dealer does not diminish the reader's concerns about a potential buyer's safety. But simply because something is legal does not always make it the best choice.
From an ethical standpoint, the reader seems to be taking the right stance by showing an appropriate level of concern for unsuspecting future buyers. The right thing is for them to trust their instincts that selling the car without disclosing all that has ailed it would not only result in a guilty conscience, but would also expose potential buyers to unsuspected risk.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin