By Jordan W. Charness

If you think about it, it’s really quite amazing: all of those thousands of pieces and parts that make up your automobile working together, reliably taking you from point A to point B and back again. We expect our car to serve us faithfully no matter how much we abuse it. Perhaps the fact that today’s cars do indeed work so well prompted the telephone call I received the other day.

A gentleman called me and asked whether I knew anything about General Motors’ products. I said that I was very familiar with this automobile manufacturer and wanted to know if there was a problem. He began to tell make this long story which began on the road to Toronto.

Apparently, last November he and his wife decided to take a trip to Toronto from Montreal. (Why he waited until March to call is beyond me.) Somewhere around Oshawa he noticed that there was what appeared to be smoke or steam rising from under the hood. The temperature gauge went up into the red and he pulled over just as his car stalled.

Fortunately he is a member of the CAA. Unfortunately he did not have a cell phone and could not call them from alongside the highway. Fortunately, a concerned motorist saw the steam and pulled over to help. Unfortunately, his cell phone provider was better suited to local urban calls and did not have adequate reception on this forlorn stretch of highway. Fortunately, an Ontario Provincial Police cruiser saw the two cars on the side of the road and stopped to see what was going on.

The police officer connected them to the CAA who sent a tow truck. At this point the car had dumped most of its remaining radiator fluid onto the road. The good Samaritan had a dog in his car who had been released for some fresh air. The dog saw the radiator fluid and seemed to think that it was water. Just before he started to drink it his owner grabbed him by the neck and yanked him away from the green fluid. Fortunately the dog’s owner knew that radiator fluid is a deadly poison and a tragedy was averted.

I was curious as to what all this had to do with General Motors but some people will not be pushed and will only tell their story at their own pace. The caller continued with a complaint that the tow truck had towed him farther than he thought he should have been towed. Not that he actually had a garage in the area that he wanted to be towed to, but nonetheless he thought that the ride could have been shorter. Fortunately, he had a CAA gold membership which provided for longer towing distances than the regular card. Unfortunately, my caller found himself in Oshawa at a strange garage.

The garage mechanic readily recognized the problem as a blown water pump. He ordered the part and had it delivered and installed all within in a couple of hours and all for a couple a hundred bucks or so. My caller and his wife were soon back on the road to Toronto.

The caller’s legal question started to become clear when he asked me if he could sue General Motors for the broken water pump and the stress and aggravation that the breakdown caused him. He said that he and his wife were so upset by the afternoon’s events that they could hardly eat dinner with their grandchildren that night. (Although his wife did jump in to point out that the meal was a trifle heavy but the desserts were delicious and their daughter-in-law is finally becoming a decent cook!)

Although thoughts of warranties, the lack of any significant punitive damages awards in Canada, and the paucity of awards for stress in this country, ran through my mind, I decided to ask my caller for better and further particulars before committing myself.

“Er… what year is your car?” I managed to sneak in while he was taking a breath. “1995″ was the answer. We were talking about an 11 year old car! My caller emphasized that the car was in great shape and that he even washed it every week. He felt that since the car had been so reliable (and so clean) up to now he certainly had a case against the manufacturer. I pointed out to him that his warranty had long ago expired and that there were not likely any extended warranties that he could have purchased that would have lasted 11 years. No matter how reliable (and clean) his car was he could not expect the manufacturer to guarantee that every part would continue to work forever. Once the warranty had expired the manufacturer was no longer under any legal obligation to replace any parts that may breakdown.

As far as the stress is concerned, even if it had been a car that was still under warranty he would not be entitled to any legal damages because a part broke down. When all is said and done, cars are still machines and they are entitled to and expected to eventually break down. On the bright side his daughter-in-laws’ cooking has improved considerably.