Last winter, William FitzGerald of Rockville, a National Institutes of Health research sociologist, decided to buy a car--a new car, rather than just another in the string of used cars he'd been getting over the years.
On March 10, He and his wife, Ubol, went to Honda City, a dealership on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie near Baltimore and after looking over various models decided on a spiffy blue Civic hatchback for $6,724.55.
The sale was routine, except for one thing: The FitzGeralds did not want the company to attach its metal "Honda City" logo on the rear of the car, like all the others in the showroom.
"I do not do free advertising," William FitzGerald explained later, "and it would damage the car if I tried to remove it."
He says Honda City agreed--informally and not in writing--to give him a logo-free car upon delivery of the Japanese import to the dealer from the U.S. port of entry at Norfolk.
But when he returned to Honda City on March 15 to pick up the car, he found a 3-inch-by-5-inch logo neatly riveted in place on the left side of the rear hatch.
FitzGerald hit the ceiling, and for the next 11 months, right up to a few weeks ago, he and Honda City clashed in a series of demands, denials, negotiations and finally a small-claims court trial over the logo and its presence on his car.
FitzGerald still has the Honda, and the Honda still has the logo riveted on its back. But FitzGerald, acting as his own lawyer, won a $250 judgment against Honda City in Anne Arundel County District Court--the cost, as estimated by the judge, to remove the logo and repaint part of the back hatch of the car.
But FitzGerald lost another and, he feels, more important battle in court: District Court Judge Robert M. Lucke Sr. rejected FitzGerald's claim that Honda City should pay him $1,000--a dollar a day for almost three years--for "enforced advertising" because of the unwanted logo.
Nobody's happy with the outcome of the case. Both FitzGerald and Honda City have appealed Lucke's ruling. The next court action, probably several months from now, will be in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.
FitzGerald, at 46 an energetic man who runs three miles a day, says his resentment against "enforced advertising" runs in the family.
"My brother's a retired cop, and whenever he's bought a car, he's never let the dealers put the logo on," FitzGerald said. "I got the idea from him."
He said that when the logo was attached to his car last year, a Honda City sales manager offered to remove it by a "new technology" that required no repainting, but his successor in the job some weeks later denied such a technology existed.
FitzGerald said he was not satisfied with the conventional removal technique because, among other things, it required repainting that would never precisely match the original paint.
For their part, Honda City officials denied ever suggesting the "new technology" solution but said they repeatedly offered other remedies, including having FitzGerald wait for another shipment of blue Civics to come in from Norfolk. FitzGerald denies the offer was made.
Honda City spokesman Art Hero said the company also offered to take back FitzGerald's Honda and reimburse him for most of the original cost.
The simplest remedy, Hero said, would have been to remove the logo and repaint the surface on the hatch. He acknowledged that the repainting would not be a perfect match, "but it would be close." FitzGerald rejected those remedies.
"I don't know what the man wanted," said Hero.
Judge Lucke said in an interview that he awarded the $250 to FitzGerald because Honda City had "violated the agreement not to put one of those logos on his car . . . It was not intentional. I think it was a mistake, some kind of breakdown in communications."
The judge said he based the $250 on the estimated cost of removing the logo and repainting the surface around the affected area.
He said he rejected FitzGerald's contention that, because the original paint on the car had faded in the intervening months since he bought it, the entire car should be repainted at a cost of more than $900.
Lucke also said he refused to consider the "enforced advertising" claim because FitzGerald's figure of a dollar a day for 1,000 days--the period during which the car would be financed--was "arbitrary . . . and not based on expert testimony about the value of the advertising."
He said, "A judge can't just pick an arbitrary number. Who's to say the logo is worth a dollar a day or $100 a day . . . or 50 cents?"
Both Lucke and FitzGerald said they were not aware of any similar "enforced advertising" case initiated by a purchaser or consumer.