Is a used car dealer responsible for selling a van with defective tires? A divided Georgia Court of Appeals recently weighed in on this question, declaring that dealers are not negligent when they fail to perform a basic inspection that would show a vehicle they sold had the wrong make and size of tires.
The court’s decision arose from a fatal 2008 accident involving a Chevrolet Sport passenger van. In 2006, Redding Swainsboro Ford Lincoln Mercury acquired the van as a customer trade-in. Redding then sold the van wholesale to another dealer, S&S Auto Sales. S&S in turn sold the van to a passenger transportation company. The company used the van to transport workers to a poultry processing plant. In May 2008, the driver lost control of the van when the tread belt on the left-front tire separated. The van crossed the opposing traffic lane and crashed into a tree. One of the eight passengers died and the other seven suffered serious injuries.
According to the passengers, the tire that failed was designed for a smaller passenger vehicle. The van required light truck tires. Neither the van’s current owner nor the two used car dealers that previously owned the vehicle noticed this defect.
Courts Absolve Dealers of Liability
The accident victims sued Redding, S&S Auto and the original tire manufacturer. The trial judge granted summary judgment to Redding and S&S Auto on the victims’ negligence claims, meaning the case never went to the jury. The victims appealed.
A majority of the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the used car dealers should prevail on the negligence issue. Judge William M. Ray, writing for the Court, said that under Georgia law, a car dealer “generally has no duty to disclose a latent product defect of which it has no knowledge.” Nor does it have to test its vehicles to discover such defects. But if the dealer voluntarily conducts an inspection, it must do so “non-negligently.”
Judge Ray added there was no precedent in Georgia for assigning liability to an “intermediate” dealer who offered a vehicle on an “as-is” basis, as Redding did when it sold the van to S&S Auto. As for S&S Auto, while an employee did conduct a “cursory walk around” and test drive before purchasing the van from Redding, Judge Ray said this did not constitute “an inspection” that could give rise to a negligence claim.
Judge M. Yvette Miller, in a dissenting opinion, said the majority and the trial court erred by not letting the victims bring their case to a jury. Judge Miller said that looking at the facts in the light most favorable to the victims–the standard for summary judgment–Redding and S&S Auto should have known the van they sold had the wrong tires, creating a dangerous condition. An expert witness retained by the victims testified that used car dealers routinely inspect tires before selling a vehicle and that it would have been simple to determine if the van had the wrong size and construction. This claim, together with the disputed “inspection” Redding conducted, presented enough of a factual dispute to justify a jury trial, Judge Miller said.