Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

N.S. man takes one of world's biggest automakers to court — and wins

A Nova Scotia man who refused to give up his fight to have Volkswagen honour a 12-year corrosion warranty has won a $7,886.40 judgment against the company in small claims court.

Volkswagen blamed tree sap, bird droppings and shoe buckles for Jetta's corrosion

Ranulph Hudston stands beside his 2007 Volkswagen Jetta. A Nova Scotia small claims court adjudicator has awarded him almost $8,000 to cover rust repairs after Volkswagen refused to honour a 12-year corrosion warranty. (Submitted by Ranulph Hudston)

Most people might be hesitant to take one of the world's biggest automakers to court. But not Nine Mile River, N.S., resident Ranulph Hudston, who persisted in his battle to have Volkswagen honour its 12-year corrosion warranty.

The retired educator wouldn't take no for an answer when his 2007 Jetta started rusting and the company denied his warranty claim. He decided to take Volkswagen to Nova Scotia small claims court, and earlier this month won a judgment of $7,886.40 to pay for the repair costs.

"I was very surprised and very pleased," Hudston said of the court's Nov. 7 ruling. "As I read the decision, I saw a lot of what I put into the case coming back to me as the truth, and the truth coming through felt really good."

His win came despite a list from Volkswagen of possible causes for the corrosion on the Jetta's door sills and rocker panels, including tree sap, bird droppings, shoe buckles and an improperly stored seatbelt.

In her ruling, small claims adjudicator Shelly Martin didn't buy any of the excuses, saying she failed "to see how a seatbelt or footwear could affect the areas in question, as the site of corrosion is not easily in contact with footwear or a seatbelt."

The 12-year corrosion warranty was provided to Hudston when he bought the vehicle brand new in 2007. He first noticed rust on the left front fender when his Jetta was almost seven years old.

He went back to Hillcrest Volkswagen in Halifax, where he purchased the vehicle. He was then sent to a Volkswagen-authorized repair shop, which fixed most of the rusted areas and replaced the right quarter panel.

This photo, showing rust on the passenger-side door sill of his Jetta, was one of the exhibits Hudston submitted to small claims court in his case against Volkswagen Canada. (Ralph Hudston)

But three years later, in 2017, he noticed blistering paint and a small strip of paint peeling on the rocker panels, as well as blistering paint on the front door sills.

He took the Jetta to a body shop for repairs and was told the body work under the paint was rusting. He was advised the repairs should be covered under Volkswagen's warranty.

Hudston went back to Hillcrest, where he was told to fill out an online inspection request that included acceptance of additional terms and conditions that were not in the original warranty. One new clause said any decisions by Volkswagen were final, while another said repairs must be made "promptly."

Hudston was subsequently sent for a repair estimate where a technician told him any attempt to clean the rust on the door sill would likely "blow a hole right through it."

More than a month later, Hillcrest Volkswagen told him the repair would not be covered, saying the corrosion was not the type covered by his warranty. It also refused to cover the rocker panels.

This photo shows rust on the driver's side door sill on Hudston's Jetta. (Ranulph Hudston)

Hudston continued to push Volkswagen to pay for the repairs, but the company responded in an email: "We are unable to base our decisions on information received from independent shops and our decision remains unchanged."

It cited a number of reasons why the corrosion might have occurred — ranging from bird droppings, to rocks, to lack of rust proofing — and also suggested the problem was due to a general lack of maintenance.

But in her decision, Martin noted photos of the vehicle showed "an older but well cared for Jetta, stored in an impeccable clean garage."

The adjudicator said she was not convinced that any of the reasons provided by Volkswagen "were of sufficient magnitude in the location of the corrosion to be its cause." She also noted that three technicians that inspected the vehicle suggested it was corrosion covered under the warranty.

Bird droppings 'laughable'

George Iny, with the consumer advocacy group Automobile Protection Association, said he's not surprised by the potential causes cited by Volkswagen. He said automakers have a template for rust cases that includes 18 reasons why corrosion might have occurred.

"In many cases, they would just throw as many as they can and hope that one or two will stick. They really need only one for the judge to be convinced they are not responsible," he said.

He calls it "laughable" that Volkswagen would say bird droppings are responsible for the rust on vertical surfaces on the lower part of the car.

Iny said his organization has heard from dozens of Volkswagen owners who have had difficulty getting their corrosion warranties honoured. As a result, his group has posted tips on its website.

Iny noted Volkswagen last year reduced its warranty from 12 to seven years, which he said is still good coverage by industry standards. 

"The impression we have is that they're applying that reduction retroactively and they're not supposed to do that," he said.

'They didn't want to hear from me'

A spokesperson for Volkswagen Canada, Thomas Tetzlaff, said the automaker takes all matters of quality very seriously and always honours the full terms of its warranties.

He said while the company respects the court's decision, it is now considering whether to appeal.

Iny said Hudston's case is a template for other Volkswagen owners facing rust problems. He said people can't go to court and simply say, "I have a warranty and my vehicle is rusting." He said vehicle owners need an expert or, at the very least, a report from an expert.

Hudston, who has owned numerous Volkswagens and thinks they're excellent cars, said it was the company's own actions that led him to continue his fight.

"They didn't seem to want to hear me. They, in fact, seemed to be stonewalling me and I guess that insulted me. I expect to be respected by the companies I buy products from," he said.

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About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.

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