Does your mechanic drive your car more often than you? Did your vacation money take you on a trip to your car dealer for yet another repair job? If the answer to either question is yes, relief may be in sight.
After a six-month delay, a consumer board has been named to help consumers get refunds or replacements for defective cars.
In September, the new Board of Consumer Claims and Arbitration, headed by consumer activist Edith Barksdale Sloan, will begin appointing arbitrators and mediating the disputes between consumers and business firms.
"I think we will really improve the delivery of services and keep the consumer from having to go into the court system, which is a very expensive and time-consuming process , and it may not meet their need," said Sloan, who once headed the city's consumer affairs office and later served on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The seven-member panel, which includes lawyers and a car dealer, expects to hear more than 450 cases a year, the board estimates.
"Automobile repair is a major problem along with home improvement," Sloan said. "The office of consumer protection did a good job of helping consumers back in 1977, and we found we had very little trouble with 95 percent of the retailers. It was the 5 percent that came to be the major problems."
The panel will handle cases involving defective cars that District residents have purchased anywhere in the metropolitan area, Sloan said. Maryland and Virginia residents who buy defective cars in the District also can file complaints with the panel.
The board was created by the city's Automobile Consumer Protection Act, which is also known as the "lemon law." Washington is among a small number of jurisdictions that, by law, require compensation for defective cars.
Under the D.C. law, which took effect in March, a dealer or manufacturer must provide refunds or replacement vehicles to consumers whose new cars have serious defects that cannot be repaired in four attempts. If the defect is safety-related, the refund or replacement must be made after one unsuccessful repair attempt.
If a customer requests a replacement car or a refund, and the car dealer disagrees, the consumer can file a complaint with the arbitration board.
Under the law, the staff of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would first try to resolve the complaint. If they fail, the case goes to the arbitration panel.
The law requires the panel to resolve consumer complaints in 60 days, but sets no time limit on how long the staff can take to decide a case. The board hopes to resolve each complaint a week after it is received, Sloan said.
The board will charge a $10 fee for each case. "This means that the consumer who does not have a lot of money will be able to get some justice," Sloan said.
Artis Hampshire, chief of the Compliance Department, said that the arbitration board, which has a $70,000 annual budget, was modeled after a similar one in Connecticut.
Other members on the arbitration panel include Frederick B. Goldberg, a lawyer and former general counsel for the D.C. Office of Consumer Protection; Frederick P. Allen, president of the Washington Federal Printing Workers Union; Edward L. Feggans, a management consultant; Sharman J. Monroe, a lawyer, and Henry C. Lee III, a special assistant to the chief of compliance of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Complaints may be sent to the Office of Compliance at 614 H St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20001. The office telephone is 727-7107.