They are the biggest car dealership group in Winnipeg, but that didn't deter a Brunkild, Man. retiree who believed he was overcharged thousands of dollars for his 2016 Chevy Cruze.
Claude Bisson threatened to take Birchwood Chevrolet to small claims court, but days before the case was to be heard by a judge, he got a call from the dealership that had adamantly refused for months to offer him a refund.
"It's not so much that it was the money, it was the principle." - Claude Bisson
Bisson ended up with a refund of $5,500.
"I felt really good," said Bisson. "It's not so much that it was the money, it was the principle."
When Bisson bought the vehicle at the end of April 2016 he paid $26,385, minus the value of the vehicle he traded. During the same week, the dealership ran newspaper ads with a price of $17,989 for a similar 2016 Chevy Cruze — a difference of more than $8,000.
A few months later, after seeing a CBC I-Team story about car dealerships adding extra fees on top of their advertised prices, Bisson said he went to the public library and searched in newspaper ads.
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That's when he found the Birchwood Chevrolet ad with the lower price.
"I was just beside myself," he said. "I couldn't believe it, you know?"
"So within a few days I phoned Birchwood and said, 'What about my refund?'"
That was in September. Bisson said he was in touch with the general manager and other staff at the dealership to find out if he could get a refund.
He read Manitoba's Consumer Protection Act and figured he had a strong case. But, he said, Birchwood Chevrolet refused to return any of the money he paid.
"I was done with them. They had told me they weren't going to do anything."
Bisson said he knew he could have filed a complaint with the provincial Consumer Protection Office, which enforces the legislation, but he wasn't convinced that would help him get any money back.
"I don't know how to put it nicely but, lack of faith maybe?" said Bisson, explaining why he turned to the courts rather than the CPO.
Birchwood Automotive Group president and CEO Steve Chipman said the settlement was meant to be confidential, but in a written statement to CBC said, "Our ultimate decision to settle was based on our belief in customer satisfaction and the monetary costs of resolving legal issues. We fully believed that the matter had been resolved to Mr. Bisson's complete satisfaction."
Chipman said Birchwood had suggested using the CPO as a means of mediating the issue.
Bisson filed his claim in small claims court on Oct. 4 against BGM Holdings Ltd., the company name associated with Birchwood Chevrolet on his contract.
He initially sought just over $6,000 and then revised the claim to $8,813.
After filing the claim, he said the dealership was still not willing to pay him anything.
"'Well this one is red, and yours is grey! People don't buy red cars.' Anyway we talked about it for quite a while." - Bisson
Five days before the case was set to be heard in court, Bisson said he had another meeting with the company.
He said Birchwood argued the car he bought was not identical to the Chevy Cruze advertised for a lower price.
"And the best he could say, 'Well this one is red, and yours is grey! People don't buy red cars.' Anyway we talked about it for quite a while."
Finally, they reached a settlement for $5,500.
Chipman said the case was a unique situation with its own independent facts and variables.
"We sought legal advice and we were advised by our lawyers that we were in compliance with the advertising legislation," Chipman wrote in his statement.
Manitoba's consumer protection legislation requires that car ads must state the total price, including all additional charges except the PST and GST.
Going to small claims court can be an effective option for resolving disputes with car dealerships, according to George Iny, executive director of the Automobile Protection Association.
"The courts are effective but people don't use them a lot. First of all we are intimidated, and secondly, often we are prepared to complain but not prepared to make a commitment in terms of time to file a case and also to have it heard," said Iny.
"What we have found, if I look back over two decades, is that the judges sitting in small claims court are much more sympathetic than they once were. And if you have a reasonably good argument and you're able to get the paperwork to support it, it is worth considering if the amount of money is significant enough," Iny said.
"And companies should be held accountable," he said.
'Birchwood Advantage' fee refunded
Bisson managed to get a second cheque from Birchwood without having to go through the Consumer Protection Office.
"And I screamed and screamed — I didn't want to pay it! - Bisson
After seeing the CBC article, Bisson questioned another item on his bill — the $899 he paid for the Birchwood Advantage, a dealership package that offers things like roadside assistance.
He said when he was buying the car he didn't want to get the Birchwood Advantage but was told he had to.
"And I screamed and screamed — I didn't want to pay it! He says 'well, you go anywhere else, you'll pay it.'," Bisson said. "Anyway, I paid it."
In the end, the dealership cut him another cheque for $917.75 for the Birchwood Advantage fee he was charged.
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