Tampa's Ernie Haire Ford was ordered to pay at least $6.9-million to resolve a long-standing class-action lawsuit for charging thousands of customers to etch a car's vehicle identification number on windshields.
Founded in 1956, the family-run business at 9545 N Florida Ave. is one of the state's largest Ford dealerships. It was one of several Tampa Bay area dealerships targeted by class-action attorneys. Crown Auto Dealerships in St. Petersburg and former Clearwater Toyota parent company Sonic Automotive Inc. faced similar allegations.
The case stems from a 2002 complaint from Haire customer Moira Gilley, who argued she was bilked out of $199 for a VIN etching she didn't request. The service was supposed to deter theft by forcing thieves to pay for replacing the incriminating windshields or risk getting caught.
Gilley said she agreed to pay $7,160 for a used 1997 Ford Taurus, but she later discovered $946 worth of extras that had been concealed on her sales contract, including the etching.
VIN etching is often grouped with other highly marked-up products tacked onto automobile sales slips. They include rust-proof undercoating, fabric protection and paint sealant.
In previous interviews, Haire representatives contended the suit was "rubbish some lawyers have dreamed up" and insisted its salespeople fully disclosed the etching. The court disagreed.
Gilley's lawyers initially hoped to recover as much as $40-million. But in a final judgment issued this month, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas awarded Gilley and other customers $3.48-million.
An additional $3-million goes to attorneys' fees and $431,700 to expenses. Haire will also have to pay 11 percent interest for as many years as it held a customer's money. Sales in which customers were eligible for refunds dated back to 1998.
Haire had little to add Wednesday. "My understanding is our insurance carrier settled," general manager Greg Balasco said.