A young, unemployed Prince George's County man has won a $500,000 judgment against an area Ford dealer for malicious prosecution after a dispute over a repair bill. The award is believed to be a record in such a suit.
A Prince George's County Circuit Court jury on Friday found Palmer Ford of Hyattsville liable for malicious prosecution and malicious abuse of use of process for its dealings with Franklin Wood of Adelphi.
A spokesman for Palmer Ford said the company was "disappointed" with the verdict and already had filed an appeal. The spokesman would not comment further on the case.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, said yesterday that he thought the $500,000 award was a record. He said the largest award he has ever heard of in such a suit involving an automobile dealer was $25,000.
The tangled case began April 3, 1977, when Wood, then a 20-year-old student at Prince George's Community College, took his 1970 Mustang convertible to Palmer Ford for repairs. He testified he was given an estimate of about $400 as the cost of repairs.
Several days later, Wood received a call from the dealer informing him the car was ready. When he arrived at the dealership he was presented with a bill for $952. Unable to pay that amount, Wood left his car at Palmer and returned home.
That night, according to Wood's testimony, he received an anonymous call from someone who identified himself as a Palmer Ford employe who claimed that very little more than $400 worth of work had been done on the car.
The man on the telephone then instructed Wood to go to the men's room at the dealership and place $400 under the trash can, and he would find a receipt marked "paid," along with his car keys, Wood testified. On April 13, Wood did just that and drove off with his car.
Several hours later Wood said he noticed the car radiator was leaking, and he took the car back to the dealer. He testified that the service manager tried to discourage him from leaving the car there, but Wood argued it was Palmer's responsibility to fix it and left the car with Palmer.
That's when Wood's troubles began with the law.
Later that same day, Wood said he received a call from John Kirby, the treasurer at Palmer Ford, inquiring how Wood had managed to get his car since they had no record of the repair bill being paid.
Kirby then asked Wood to come to his office and explain the events that led to his earlier trip to the men's room. When Wood arrived at Kirby's office he was told that the service manager had quit that morning and that Wood would have to pay the $952 if he wanted to get his car back.
Wood said his mother then went to her credit union, borrowed the money and paid the full $952 to get the car from the dealer. At this point, Wood said, he was out of pocket $1,352 for the car. Wood sold the Mustang in 1978 and his mother then repaid the credit union loan.
Several days after Wood paid the $952 to Palmer Ford, the Prince George's County police arrested him on embezzlement charges involving the repair incident.
Wood later testified that he then called Kirby, who said, "Well, Frank, I did not want to bring any charges. I think you are a good guy. You paid us off. You showed good faith.
"But the president of Palmer Ford--I didn't know it--has a strict policy of prosecuting all people that deal in fraudulent ways with the company . . . It is out of my hands. I am sorry."
When the case came up for trial in Prince George's County District Court the charge was changed to false pretenses and another date was set for further hearing. Later the charge was changed from false pretenses to larceny and unauthorized use. A county court judge dismissed the charges.
After the charges were finally dropped, Wood's attorney, Arthur M. Wagman, filed the malicious prosecution suit against Palmer, but a Prince George's County Circuit Court dismissed the suit.
Wagman then took his case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which ruled Wood was entitled to a trial by jury. Last Friday, the jury took just one hour to rule in Wood's favor.