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A Nearly Tragic Story With No Ending

A NEARLY TRAGIC STORY WITHOUT AN ENDING...

5:30 A.M. September 14, 2011. My 19-year-old daughter, Glendyn, stood alone in the dark, terrified and frantic, on the edge of a cold, slick interstate highway. The swirling wind blew frigid, early-morning drizzle against her quivering lips, as she gazed, transfixed upon the surreal scene playing out before her: the car she had only seconds ago pulled to the shoulder bursting into flames. A steady parade of automobiles, trucks, and buses sped by. Not a single driver stopped to help. By the time the Rutherford County Fire Department responded to her panicked 911 call, what remained bore no resemblance to the 2002 Volvo S-60 purchased from Action Nissan in Nashville, only five weeks earlier. Later in the day, when I called Walker’s Towing in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to release the Volvo’s carcass for an insurance inspection, the good ol’ boy on the phone asked me, out of shear curiosity, what color the car had been. Evidently, there was not a single patch of paint on the charred chassis. When I met the Rutherford County Sherriff’s car in the McDonalds parking lot at the Smyrna exit off I-24, my daughter was devastated, in a state of abject shock. She began tearfully recalling the various personal items that had been reduced to ashes right before her eyes. Enumerating loss after loss only sank her further into her grief.

 

A mere five weeks before, at the Action Nissan pre-owned lot, the S-60 appeared to be the ideal vehicle for my daughter. The day after she drove it off the lot, however, it immediately became a source of nagging problems. Curiously, the battery died the second day. A rear turn signal indicator flashed at double time, indicating that a light bulb was burnt out. One would have thought that the 40-some point inspection the dealership boasted about would have caught those basic, easily solvable issues. Then, several parts the dealer had promised to replace seemed to be unavailable. Glendyn made numerous trips to the Action Nissan service department and, even with a new light bulb, the quick cadence of the blinking turn signal was intermittent. A youthful staff mechanic by the name of Cody told her that some wires must be crossed somewhere. He then reassured her that it wasn’t anything to be overly concerned about. She could come back anytime to get the problem satisfactorily diagnosed and cured for good.

 

Cody’s assessment was correct. This strange electrical syndrome wasn’t a serious issue. Or rather, it wasn’t until Glendyn was on her way home from a visit with a girlfriend on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University. Shivering, crying, and watching the bonfire from the side of the highway, she pondered horrific what-ifs. As a live-in nanny, she totes three kids around to school and other activities. What if they had been in that car? Would she have been able to get them out in time? Then, she began to remember all the personal belongings she had left in the vehicle in her scramble to get clear from a rapidly growing fire: purse, wallet, debit card, driver’s license, over $100 in cash, prescription medications, shoes, slippers, newly purchased clothing, her favorite pair of Buckle Jeans, and a trunk filled with clothes her mother had only a week before brought back from Chicago. Compact discs, make-up, hairbrushes, and accessories. The list of items in her head lengthened to literally thousands of dollars worth of personal stuff, much of it treasured. 

 

It was hard enough to face losing her car in such a bizarre, startling, and dramatic way — especially only 32 days after she had purchased it. To go through this terrifying experience alone, in the dark, in the chill of an early fall drizzle, watching so many important and essential personal possessions vaporizing must have been soul-scarring, particularly for a girl who was already struggling with anxiety and emotional issues.

 

So, who actually was responsible for what could easily have been an even greater tragedy? Was it the manufacturer of the vehicle? Was it the dealer who sold us the vehicle or their mechanic who failed to take certain symptoms seriously? Four separate owners had driven the Volvo well beyond 130,000 miles before it suddenly self-immolated in a roadside blaze. Why now? Why was my daughter so unfortunate to be behind the wheel when smoke began bilging from beneath the engine? It seems obvious that she did nothing to cause this puzzling and distressing calamity. Why then should my daughter be left carless, in debt, and scarred at such an early age by bad credit? Finally, will a hero emerge to make it right for her?

 

So far, from my very first phone call, the folks from Liberty Mutual Insurance have been accessible, courteous, sympathetic, friendly, efficient, and take-charge. However, they informed me that they will only pay market value on the destroyed car less our $500 deductible. That sounded reasonable to me — until I checked the Kelly Blue Book value on a 2002 Volvo S-60 with an odometer reading over 130,000 miles. Had it been in “perfect” condition (which it wasn’t), the car we bought for $6,950 would only be worth $4,600. Using that generous estimate of replacement value, we would receive $4,100 from the insurer, which amounts to slightly more than half of the balance on the car loan. With the loan collateral destroyed, certainly the lender will call in the note. So, not only would an insurance settlement offer no help to replace Glendyn’s lost possessions, it would leave her carless and facing a $3,750 payoff — all this before her first loan payment was even due.

 

According to Kelly Blue Book, the trade-in value on the Volvo was less than $3,000. So theoretically, the dealer not only profited from selling a new Nissan Altima to the previous owner, but Action Nissan was able to make a quick four grand by turning over the trade-in. Nice work if you can get it. I guess 19-year-olds have to learn the hard way that being impulsive in an auto purchase can lead to multiple levels of disaster. Being her father and co-signer on the loan, I regret that I failed to do greater due diligence on the deal. In my defense, mitigating factors played into my skewed perspective. We had just come from Carmax, where pre-owned vehicles under $10,000 are few and far between. So, we walked onto the Nissan lot already cross-eyed from sticker shock. Sixty-nine hundred bucks seemed dirt cheap, especially for such a quality vehicle. As Volvo’s reputation for safety far surpasses most brands, I was delighted to envision my daughter driving a vehicle that would protect her and her charges in a crash. And Michael Jarman, our wiry, youthful “Sales Guide” reassured us that we would have a comprehensive 45-day warranty on the entire vehicle. Carmax only offered a 30-day plan. It sounded too good to be true: an affordable price on a Volvo with a warranty to protect us from suddenly discovering we had unluckily purchased a lemon. I felt sorry for Jarman and Action Nissan, thinking that Glenny and I were about to pull a fast one on them.

 

The promised warranty, however, failed to materialize. The loan application process and the signing of page after page of requisite paperwork had dragged on for nearly three hours. I was under the gun, expected within the hour at a local radio station for a two-hour, live, on-air interview. A stone had been thrown into the road. Glendyn would not be allowed to take possession of the Volvo, unless I could show current proof of auto insurance. Somehow, my up-to-date insurance card had not been placed in its proper place. So, on a Sunday, I was placing phone calls to Liberty Mutual, desperately trying to current proof of insurance faxed. That was when Action’s Finance Manager, Larry Bicknell, handed me a page of the contract that I refused to sign. “The purchaser understands that this vehicle is being sold ‘As-is with no warranty’.” “Wait a minute,” I stalled, relaying what Michael Jarman had promised us in his sales pitch.

 

“Sorry,” Bicknell said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “this vehicle has excessive mileage. We don’t warranty any vehicle with more than 80,000 miles.” Still on the phone with Liberty Mutual, I just pushed the paper away, indicating that I would not proceed without a warranty on the car. Bicknell immediately paged someone. Minutes later, a stocky, red-faced man marched Jarman into an adjacent room, where he scolded the young Sales Guide in what appeared to be “no uncertain terms.” The stocky sales manager then proceeded to barge into Bicknell’s office. Completely ignoring that I was involved in a telephone conversation, he looked at me with evident annoyance and barked something to the effect of, “I can give you 45 days on the power train and the engine, but nothing else.” I tried to get the rude, pink-complected man to wait so I could complete giving important information to my insurance company. The impatient sales manager just repeated his offer, making it evident that, as far as he was concerned, I was wasting his valuable time. I could take his compromise or leave it. No skin of his nose. I needed to get to my radio interview and my daughter was sitting there doe-eyed in anticipation of driving away in her new Volvo. So I nodded my head to the sales manager. He scribbled something nearly illegible on the “As-is, No warranty” sheet and marched out of Bicknell’s office with no cordiality whatsoever.  

 

The afternoon after the fire, I wrote a terse letter to Steve Rossi, Action Nissan’s general manager, and sent it to him as an email attachment. I described the blow-by-blow of our experience with the car and his dealership, and demanded that Action Nissan make this right by paying off the full amount of the  $7,856,00 loan. I also requested an additional $1,000 to reimburse my daughter for her personal losses. Within hours, Mr. Rossi called. He was affable and seemingly empathetic. We commiserated about the unfortunate fire and how traumatic it must have been for Glendyn. Then he asked me what he could do for me. Briefly and politely, we discussed some options. Suddenly, he seemed hurried and suggested that we wait and see the Liberty Mutual offer, then re-evaluate from there. Rossi seems like a decent guy. At this juncture, it seems hard to believe that he would leave a 19-year-old $4,000 in debt and without a car. Steve Rossi will have the opportunity to write the end of this traumatic tale. His ending will paint him as one of two classic characters: the hero who rescues the distressed damsel from the railroad tracks, or the villain, twiddling his handlebar mustache, protecting his profits, and sniggling in sadistic delight as the train approaches. Your choice, Mr. Rossi. Which will it be?