By Jordan W. Charness

If you missed last week’s column you missed our initial look into the legal ramifications of the various Roadside assistance programs that are available either privately or through automobile manufacturers and dealers. I also mentioned how Peter had lent his car to out-of-town friends so that they could take it on a two-week driving vacation. Since the car was fairly new and still under warranty and was also covered by the manufacturer’s Roadside Assistance plan he felt that he had nothing to worry about. He was wrong.

To add to the complexity of the situation, Peter and his family were on vacation at the same time that his friends were driving his car around the country. He knew that his friends were going to Québec City and then out to the Charlevoix region to go whale watching. After that they would return to Montréal and then cross the border into Vermont where they would meet up with him in New Hampshire and give him back the car.

Peter and his family were enjoying a matinée performance of a Broadway play in Manhattan when his cell phone began to vibrate. Since Peter has good manners he would never talk on his phone while the play was in progress but he did take a look at the call display to see who was calling. He didn’t recognize the number or even the area code.

When the play was over Peter picked up his messages and found a frantic message from his friend telling him that the car had broken down and they were stuck at the border. She left a phone number for him to call and asked him to call immediately since it was urgent.

Peter went to a pay phone to make a call since the battery on his cell phone was running low. From a phone booth on the corner in Manhattan he dialed the mystery number. To his surprise an officer of the United States Customs and Immigration Department answered it. Peter asked if perhaps there were some stranded visitors at the border.

The officer confirmed that two ladies from out of the country were camped out at the border crossing between Québec and Vermont. Their car had broken down just after they crossed into the United States and they were waiting anxiously in his office to hear from me.

When his friend got on the phone Peter asked why she had called him instead of calling Roadside assistance. After all according to the contract the Roadside assistance plan was supposed to provide 24-hour rescue service. She told him that she had called but was told that since they were in Vermont the toll-free number that came with the Roadside assistance kit directed her to Roadside assistance in the United States.

The American Roadside assistance said that they could not help her because the car was sold in Canada and transferred her to the Canadian arm of the manufacturer’s Roadside assistance company. At the Canadian side she was told that their computers were down and she should call back in three to five hours! This was not acceptable. No matter how nice the U.S. Border patrol was they really did not want these two ladies in their office for an extended number of hours. She called Peter.

Peter told her to stay put and dialed the same 800-number. Once again he was connected to the U.S. arm of the manufacturer’s Roadside assistance program. The lady he spoke to said that since the car was sold in Canada he would have to deal with the Canadian side. He explained about the stranded ladies at the border and the fact that the Canadian counterpart seemed to be temporarily out of business. A supervisor was called and he waited 10 minutes to be told once again that he must deal with the Canadian side and he would be transferred.

The nice lady he spoke to at the Canadian company said that she never heard that their computers were down and in fact hers was up and running. She double checked his vehicle registration number and confirmed that he was indeed covered by the manufacturer’s Roadside assistance plan. However since the car had broken down in the United States it was really the American side, she said, who must handle it. She would be delighted to transfer him.

Peter was exasperated. He asked her what would happen to the car and she told him that it depended on which side of the border the car could actually be found. If he wanted the car towed back to Canada they would only tow the car a maximum of 60 km. This would still leave it about 45 km from his dealer in Montréal. Peter would be responsible for first getting someone to push the car across the border and into Canada. Roadside assistance would take it to a dealership and leave it there to be repaired.

If Peter wanted the car to be towed to the nearest American dealership for repairs, he would have to deal with the American arm of Roadside assistance. She would transfer him.

According to law, the Roadside assistance people should not really have treated him like a ping-pong ball. When Peter bought the car he was guaranteed 24-hour Roadside assistance anywhere in North America. He pointed this out and insisted that the Canadian supervisor arrange a conference call with the American side since the Americans had already refused to help him. It was lucky he did.

Next week you’ll find out what happened to the car and the guests.

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