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driving concerns

We’ve been having issues with our 2020 vehicle. Last June, all the screens, including the one with the speedometer – went black. After that, it was at the dealership for repairs for months – we’re making payments on a car we can’t drive. The car maker refused to buy it back, so we went to the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (Camvap). During the video arbitration meeting, the dealer’s shop foreman said the problem had been fixed and so the arbitrator closed the case. But when we picked up our car, it soon happened again. Can we go back to CAMVAP? Are there any other options? – T., Toronto

If you take your dispute with an auto maker to an arbitrator you’ve got one chance to make your case. If they decide against you, there’s no do-over.

“The decision is final,” said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association, a national pro-consumer advocacy group with offices in Toronto and Montreal. “[There’s] a big risk of not doing your preparation properly before the hearing,” and there’s no way to bolster your case after the fact, he warned.

Unlike in the United States, Canada doesn’t have so-called lemon laws requiring an auto maker to buy back your car if it is plagued with problems that dealers can’t fix, Iny said.

Instead, we have the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (Camvap), a not-for-profit organization backed by the auto industry. Its members include auto makers, associations, and representatives of provincial and territorial governments.

An alternative to taking an auto maker to court, Camvap mediates disputes between consumers and manufacturers about defective cars and new vehicle warranties, and its independent arbitrators can order an auto maker to fix a car or buy it back. The decision is binding for both the auto maker and the consumer.

Auto makers aren’t required to join Camvap, even though most do. In 2019, Fiat Chrysler (FCA) – now Stellantis – pulled out after decisions weren’t going its way, Iny said.

Funded by auto makers

Camvap doesn’t charge consumers; instead, it’s funded by auto makers. While Camvap doesn’t reveal how much each manufacturer contributes, the annual amount is based on the number of cases each auto maker had in the previous year.

“Camvap is neither ‘friendly’ nor ‘free’ like their website says,” Iny said. “The hearing is adversarial, with the other side having the advantage of experience going in – and they’re more likely to be considered authoritative than a consumer without an expert.”

According to Camvap’s 2020 annual report, 124 cases went to arbitration that year. There were 36 buybacks, seven cases where the auto maker had to reimburse the consumer for repairs, and 37 cases where the auto maker was ordered to complete repairs.

But many consumers might not agree with Camvap’s definition of a win, Iny said.

“The other ‘winners’ were mostly ordered back to the dealer for another repair,” Iny said. “For Camvap, that’s a customer win, but not for many customers who wanted to be rid of their vehicles.”

Again, the decision is binding, Moody said. If you disagree with the decision or the same problem recurs, you can’t go back to Camvap and you can’t then take the auto maker to court.

“Consumers make a decision to come to Camvap or go to court,” Moody said.

But if your car’s under warranty, you can keep going back to the auto maker to fix the problem, Moody said.

Preparation is key

While the decision is binding, if the auto maker doesn’t honour it, you can take them to court.

“If the auto maker does not follow through on an order, [the consumer] can take the order for judicial review,” Camvap’s Moody said. “We have a legal assistance program and we will cover the cost of the consumer’s lawyer to have the order enforced.”

That typically happens once “every couple of years,” Moody said.

If you’re successful, you still won’t get anything beyond what was in the original Camvap decision.

That’s why it’s important to prepare for that Camvap hearing, Iny said. Because the hearings can get technical, either use the expert CAMVAP provides for free – or, better yet, bring your own expert who has diagnosed and documented the problem.

“In a technical case, you are much better off to bring your own expert,” he said.

While Camvap is much faster than the courts, what Canada really needs are lemon laws for vehicles that are facing repeated repairs that don’t solve the problem, Iny said.

“Those laws would permit a return privilege for goods with serious defects that are unrepairable,” Iny said.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.