It started out with just a phone call: “ I have just had the worstest day,” Rochelle told me when she phoned. “First I got a ticket for going through a red light, and later I had a car wreck. I got another ticket because the wreck was my fault.” I asked Rochelle how her car was and if anyone was hurt. “Well, it’s not good but they’re going to tow it to a body shop later today. I did drive it home. We’re fine but the other lady was taken to the hospital.” For the first time in her life, Rochelle had car insurance. She had to have insurance this time because the car had been expensive and she wouldn’t have been able to buy it unless she also had insurance. Her previous car had been repossessed. She had stopped making payments because it was a lemon. It had also been in a wreck where the at- fault- driver fled the scene. Rochelle had no insurance then. That car is now part of her very bad credit report.
The wreck and two tickets were just the beginning of a very unfortunate tale of car repair. Rochelle had the car towed to a body shop chosen because a friend knew a friend who had taken a car to be repaired at the place. That information, plus a rumor that this body shop discounted the deductible, was enough to make Rochelle’s decision. I started to have a very bad feeling about the whole thing. I looked the company up and saw that the body shop was rated an “F” by The Better Business Bureau. The information came too late because the car had already been towed off.
Because Rochelle had insurance, she was able to get a rental car. The rental car solved her immediate transportation problem so she wasn’t worried about that. She was, however, very worried about the cost of the two tickets and the cost of the insurance deductible. That wasn’t going to go away, and Rochelle had no money to pay for those things. I suggested that something besides another payday loan or high cost finance company loan should be the solution if that were possible. Rochelle was already $34,000 in debt due to loans for attending for profit colleges, repossessed cars, non-payment of debts to banks and department stores, and debts to hospitals due to the lack of health insurance.
A couple of weeks went by, and Rochelle did not hear from the body shop. I suggested she call to find out when the car would be ready. She called and was told they had only just talked to the insurance company. They would also fax over a form she needed to sign. The form said that the body shop would become the owner of the car if she didn’t pay in full when the car was completed. I had never signed such a thing and suggested she not sign it, either. She didn’t. Things were sounding stranger and stranger. The insurance company said no work was being done on the car. They had been to the body shop several times to check on things.
Things went from bad to worse. The car was not getting fixed. The time limit on the rental car was running out. Rochelle was just about willing to throw it all in with frustration and let the body shop have the car. At first she tried to get it moved to another body shop, but it couldn’t be moved without paying an expensive “storage fee” for the time the car had been at the original body shop. Rochelle was between a rock and a hard place. The body shop kept finding new things wrong with the car and asked the insurance company for more repair money. Sometimes the insurance company would agree, but often they would not. No work had been done on the car after it had been at the shop for 4 weeks. Then, miraculously, the body shop suddenly claimed the car would be done on Monday. The rental car had to be turned in and was. The car was, by no surprise, not ready on Monday. More work and more insurance money was needed. “I’m just turning it over to God. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t control it,” Rochelle told me when she called in tears. I was not a miracle worker nor was I a lawyer. I had no immediate fix for the problem either. Rochelle did manage to get the shop to give her a loaner car to use. They had said they would if she had to turn in the rental car. They did that, but it took hysterical crying by Rochelle to achieve that goal. She was at wits’ end.
Finally, six weeks after her car was towed to the very questionable body shop, Rochelle had her car back. She paid a $250 deductible, which was half of the $500 her insurance company required. Many, many “supplemental” insurance claims had been made to the insurance company over the six weeks the car was at the shop. A well-respected body shop offered to check her repaired car for the quality of work when they heard her problem. It would be at no cost. That didn’t happen. “I’m just so tired about the whole thing I don’t want to talk about it any more,” Rochelle told me. “I don’t want to find out if anything else is wrong.”
What started out as “the worstest day” turned into a worse six weeks. Luckily Rochelle did have car insurance. Without it she could have landed in jail and had lawyer’s fees. “Why do these things always happen to me?” Rochelle asked. She asks this question often. We know each other fairly well now, but my answer is still hard. “You don’t have a lot of people around you who have learned the right answers,” I tell her. “They give you bad advice.” Rochelle grew up and lives in a culture of poverty. She does what her experience tells her to do and what those around her tell her to do. Now her experience will tell her to keep her eyes wide open when dealing with auto body shops. And maybe these “worstest days” will become fewer. One can only hope so, for her sake.