During the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we all watched in horror as the Gulf Coast became submerged in floodwaters and people throughout the region suffered enormous losses of life and property. Since that time, we’ve witnessed extensive in flooding in other parts of the country, most recently in Ohio. Floods are undeniably tragic, but few people realize just how widely the repercussions of flooding are felt — even months and years later.
One of the unforeseen consequences of severe flooding is the deluge of damaged vehicles that enter the marketplace. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, Attorneys General across the United States began sounding alarms about flood-damaged cars that were being cleaned up and sold as late model used cars. Vehicles from the Gulf Coast and areas that have experienced more recent flooding remain problematic for consumers.
A flooded vehicle is most often considered a total loss or a salvage vehicle, but scam artists engage in a practice known as “title washing.” With title washing, ownership of a vehicle is transferred (and thus re-titled) through several states. Eventually, the title no longer carries the “salvage” or “total loss” label.
According to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, warning signs that a vehicle may have been flooded include:
- Moldy smell
- Discolored, faded, or stained upholstery and carpeting
- Defective electrical items, including lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, radios, heaters, and air conditioners
- Power window and/or seat assemblies operating sluggishly
- Distortion in the speakers when the volume on the radio or CD player is turned up
- Defective gauges or other items on the dashboard
- Watermarks, especially on the outside of the engine, inside the garnish moldings and “kick plates,” and inside the rear compartment
- A moist or moldy air filter
- Signs of mud, rust, or water damage in the trunk, glove compartment, and under the seats and dashboard
- Muddy residue in the spare tire well
- Moisture in the headlamps and tailgate assemblies
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers the following tips to avoid buying flood-damaged cars:
- Have a mechanic complete a pre-inspection before you buy.
- Buy from someone you know or a dealer who offers a warranty or buy-back program.
- Watch out for “great deals” on vehicles less than five years old that have new carpeting or upholstery.
In addition, you can check a vehicle’s history using AutoCheck or CARFAX. Both services provide a title check, odometer check, problem check, and registration check. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) has a database for vehicles and watercraft affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.
If you suspect that you may have purchased a flood-damaged vehicle, there are a number of avenues of legal recourse you can explore. Because different federal and state laws come into play, it’s in your best interest to retain the services of a Lemon Law attorney to fight for redress on your behalf.
If the vehicle you purchased is relatively new, it may be covered your state’s Used Car Lemon Law. If the title or other documentation didn’t say the vehicle was a salvage or total loss, an express warranty exists that the vehicle was not salvaged. Similarly, not disclosing a vehicle’s repair or damage history can be a violation of state Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) laws. If there are problems with the vehicle’s title, they may be covered under state laws relating to the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).
It takes extensive knowledge to ascertain which legal avenue will give you the best chances of success. A Lemon Law attorney will be able to perform the necessary research and build a case that will enable you to get justice.