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Car ad not deceptive, but salesperson’s statements keep fraud claim alive

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Car dealers, like many businesses, often “puff up” their advertisements to make their cars more attractive to potential buyers, and this puffery can’t be the basis of deception or fraud claims, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. But a woman’s fraud claim against an Indianapolis car dealer will continue.

Heather Kesling sued Hubler Nissan Inc. for fraud and deception after the 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse she purchased from the dealer that was advertised as a “Sporty Car at a Great Value Price” ended up needing significant work, rendering it undrivable. Before she bought the car, it needed jumped and idled roughly, but the salesperson told Kesling that it just needed a tune up and had been sitting for a while. She discovered the problems with the car after buying it. An expert who inspected the car two years later claimed the dealership should have discovered those problems when accepting the car as a trade in.

She sued under the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act and sought treble damages because the ad was criminal deception. The representation that the car just needed a tune up was fraudulent, she argued, because the defects should have been apparent during the trade-in inspection. A split Indiana Court of Appeals granted summary judgment for the dealer.  

“Here, each part of ‘Sporty Car at a Great Value Price’ can reasonably be taken only as puffing … . ‘Sporty’ simply cannot reasonably be ascribed any significance as a representation of a car’s state of repair or drivability,” Justice Loretta Rush wrote. “Similarly, ‘Great Value Price’ cannot reasonably be understood to have any greater significance than the comparable terms ‘great price’ or ‘priced to sell.’”

“Since puffing is merely a statement of opinion … it cannot be a representation of fact—and thus, cannot be ‘deceptive’ under the DCSA,” she continued. And because “Sporty Car at a Great Value Price” expresses Hubler’s puffed opinion, rather than representing any objective fact, it cannot be a basis for a criminal deception claim.

The fraud claim, though, survives because stating a car “would just need a tune-up,” in the face of actual or constructive knowledge that the car had far more serious problems, does represent fact – and therefore may be the basis of a fraud claim when a seller gives it as a knowingly incomplete answer to a buyer’s specific question, the court held. Also, there is a genuine issue of fact as to Kesling’s reliance on the salesperson’s statements.

The lawsuit, Heather N. Kesling v. Hubler Nissan, Inc., 49S02-1302-CT-89, is remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

 

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