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Car left at Pinellas Park dealership gets into crash during test drive

After it was dropped off at Crown Honda in Pinellas Park, the Civic hybrid was in a crash that caused $7,000 in damage.

Special to the Times

After it was dropped off at Crown Honda in Pinellas Park, the Civic hybrid was in a crash that caused $7,000 in damage.

ST. PETERSBURG — Leslie Fisher dropped her daughter's car off at the Honda dealership after a dashboard light warned about a possible brake problem.

Two days later, she learned that the Civic hybrid had been in a crash during an after-hours test drive to a flag football game. A minor problem had turned into $7,000 worth of damage.

Insurance is paying for the damage. But Fisher is upset, accusing the technicians of using the hybrid for personal use.

"I feel like they've hung us out to dry," she said. "The car would never have been in an accident if they hadn't have taken it."

Mike Cooley, general manager at Crown Honda in Pinellas Park, said the technicians were driving the car according to policy and that Fisher had signed a waiver allowing the test drives.

"The intention was to find what was wrong with the car and fix it, period," Cooley said.

Fisher dropped the car off at Crown Honda on Nov. 18. A day later, the problem remained a mystery because the warning light came on intermittently.

That night, employee David Furst drove the car to his home in St. Petersburg to see whether the problem would occur during the trip. It didn't.

Shortly afterward, William Johnson, the dealership's master technician, picked Furst up for their weekly flag football game in Largo. Furst suggested they drive the hybrid to try to diagnose the problem on the way.

Both men have their own cars, Cooley said, and had no personal need to use the hybrid.

On the way back to St. Petersburg after the game, the light came on. The men pulled over and fixed the problem, flipping a switch that tells the computer when the driver is stepping on the brakes. The warning light went off.

They had resumed driving back to Furst's house when a woman ran a red light, hitting the hybrid in the left rear.

A Florida Highway Patrol report shows that the crash at 71st Street and 54th Avenue was not the fault of the dealership staff.

The other driver's insurance is paying to repair the hybrid.

But Fisher said she doesn't think the men should have been driving her daughter's car at 10:30 at night.

"I want the public to know that the service department is using the cars for personal reasons," Fisher said. "People who take their cars in for service need to know that."

Cooley said that once or twice a month employees will take a vehicle home to diagnose a problem. The dealership has customers sign a form that includes "permission to operate the vehicle … for the purpose of testing and/or inspection." He said their policy also is to inform customers that their car will be driven after hours.

Fisher, Cooley says, was told of the practice. She says she was not.

Even though the car will be repaired, Fisher thinks it will still be unsafe because it has been in a crash. She wants Crown Honda to replace it — for free.

Cooley offered to allow Fisher to trade in the crashed car, but she said that was like anyone else's getting a trade-in deal.

Cooley said he has tried to make Fisher happy, within reason.

"We don't like this situation any more than they do. We didn't cause this accident."

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Car left at Pinellas Park dealership gets into crash during test drive 12/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:08pm]
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