Dear Car Talk:
On Friday, I heard a horrible grinding coming from the right rear wheel of my 2000 Subaru Impreza, along with a feeling of a flat tire. At the time, I was going 65 mph on the New Jersey Turnpike. It wasn’t a flat; it appeared as if the top of the wheel was leaning in toward the car. After being towed to a nearby shop, I was told that the wheel bearing needed to be replaced; however, only a month and a half earlier, I thought it had been replaced! When my car was inspected, my local service center said the right rear wheel bearing needed to be replaced in order to pass. Nearly $400 and, supposedly, a new wheel bearing later, they gave me an inspection sticker. When I told the New Jersey service center about this, they said it absolutely could not have been replaced, because the rust buildup shows it has never been opened. They estimated $550 to fix it, which included extra time to get through the rust. After three hours, they gave up (charging me $0), and I had the car towed to the local Subaru dealer, who also insisted that the wheel bearing had not been replaced. The dealer is estimating over $1,300 in repairs, because they will have to cut it out due to the significant rust. The original place that inspected the car insists that they replaced the wheel bearing: “If we charged you, we did it.” He said the only way for him to check it out is to get the car to him. That would mean an hour-long tow, which is out of the question. My original receipt says “Right Rear Axle Bearing, $116 parts + $262 labor + tax.” I double-checked that they didn’t work on another wheel by accident. Do I have any way to prove who is correct, and if the part wasn’t replaced originally, what kind of recourse do I have? I’ve taken photos, and the dealer is saving all the parts he takes off the vehicle. Thanks! — Pam
You’re very lucky. And that original shop is very lucky, too. When a wheel bearing breaks, the wheel can come off entirely. And if you’re going 65 mph on a crowded highway, that often doesn’t end well.
You have all the proof you need to take the original guys to small claims court and get all of your money back — including your legal fees. You have photos and, presumably, you can get written opinions from two others professional shops that state clearly that the work was never done.
But before you go to court, speak to the owner of the original shop. Here’s my guess as to what happened: Your car got assigned to one of the mechanics at the shop, and he tried to get your wheel bearing off, but he couldn’t. As we now know, it was rusted to beat the band. In fact, these cars are known for difficult wheel bearings — $1,300 probably is what it will cost you, because most of the rear suspension on that side of the car will have to be replaced.
The bearing probably had some play in it, which is the first sign it was going bad. But it probably wasn’t making noise yet, or you’d have heard it. So maybe the mechanic said to himself, “Who’s gonna know?”
After scraping the skin off his knuckles for a while and getting more and more ticked off, he wiped the area clean, put the wheel back on, threw the new wheel bearing in his tool box and told the boss the car was done.
So it’s possible he deceived the owner of the shop, too. After all, maybe this guy is making $15 an hour, doesn’t plan to stay there for the long term and he’s not concerned about the shop’s reputation.
So I’d present the shop owner with the overwhelming evidence you have that the mechanic absolutely did not do the job the shop charged you for, and remind him that you very well could have died because of the deception. Then ask him if he’d rather refund your money and give you a heartfelt apology, or see you in small claims court — and all over Yelp.
Let’s hope he does the right thing. And I’m glad you’re still with us, Pam.
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