Ultimate bad look: When a car dealer threatens a customer

A Holden dealer in Queensland is threatening to sue an elderly couple over an online video, which seems disproportionate, and a bad idea

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It would be fair to say that Ken and Wendy Knox, from the sleepy outback NSW hamlet of Boomi, north of Moree, wish they’d never bought a shitbox Colorado and they certainly wish they’d they’d never set foot inside Tait Motors >> a Holden dealership in Goondowindi, which is now threatening to sue them.

I think it’s fair to say negotiations have broken down utterly.

There appears to be two versions of events. The version put forward by the lemon car lobbyists who produced the video paints a picture of the quintessential ageing Aussie battlers getting screwed over by a country dealer with its finger in a lot of small town pies and enough cash to hire an expensive law firm.

Mr Knox has apparently also been charged as a public nuisance by the local council after what he says was a peaceful demonstration outside the dealership. However, there’s an assault charge pending against him, which he denies.

(Frankly, he doesn’t look that dangerous to me. I’d be embarrassed to allege to the cops that he had assaulted me in a meaningful way. Just saying, a propos of nothing. I make no comment about his likely guilt or innocence.)

Mr Knox claims he’s even received death threats from the dealership.

(I’ve never understood why this worries people. People who threaten to kill you inevitably don’t. It’s the ones who quietly plan it and just go ahead that are of somewhat more concern. I get death threats less often than I’d like. For a journalist, receiving a death threat is like winning Olympic Gold.)

Check out Ken's Oil Guzzling Colorado on Facebook >>

The Tait dealership claims the truth is essentially the polar opposite set of circumstances. Not only has the car been great, they say - except for needing a new engine because of excessive oil consumption (it is, after all, a Colorado) - they are also saints, apparently. In a nutshell you might put the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela in a blender and make yourself a Tait Motors smoothie. Twice the appeal of chocolate, plus, it prevents tooth decay...

I formed the view, from the Tait Motors version of events and various reactions, that the dealership sits on the summit of Bullshit Mountain, metaphorically, and offers the opportunity for potential customers to enjoy an espresso on the terrace, from which they might survey the moral arc of humanity beneath ... while parting with their cash.

FREE SPEECH, NORTH KOREA-STYLE

Shand Taylor Lawyers, the firm threatening to sue the Knoxes on behalf of Tait, says:

“Our clients respect everyone’s right to the freedom of speech, but of course that freedom should be exercised in a fair and balanced manner. Regrettably, the content of the video is a very clear and blatant abuse of the right to freedom of speech.” - Shand Taylor Lawyers, acting for Tait
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This is a view also expressed by Tait Motors separately. Download and read the full Shand Taylor threat >>

On this front there are a couple of important points:

In Australia there is no bill of rights. There’s no legislation that I am aware of that confers the right to free speech. All the legislation I know of, concerning free speech, imposes limitations on what may be freely said.

To any arsehole whose view is that free speech must be fair and balanced, I’d suggest: Who gets to decide what is fair and balanced? Pretty slippery slope. This is the most preposterous and intellectually impoverished imputation I can imagine any allegedly educated person making about free speech.

How does one make controversial statements if everything said must pass the ‘fair and balanced’ test? Riddle me that, firm of contemptible lawyers. It’s potentially quite lucrative - perhaps we could fine everyone who breaches the test, by saying anything controversial or offensive.

So I call bullshit on that. (Professor Harry G Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit >> is all I ever use - look it up if you’re unsure what I mean by the term.) Also, I fail to see how one might (quote) ‘clearly and blatantly abuse the right to free speech’ if it doesn’t actually exist as a gazetted right.

INTENT TO GAG, LAWYER-STYLE

The lawyers droned on, regrettably:

“Our clients consider the content of the video and Facebook publication to be highly defamatory, misleading and deceptive, and constituting an injurious falsehood.” - Shand Taylor Lawyers, acting for Tait

In my view this is a contemptible move from the mongrel lawyer playbook. That’s a personal opinion. Companies generally cannot sue for defamation under Australian law. But there is an obscure tort called ‘injurious falsehood’ that they can sue you for. Hypothetically.

The standard of proof for injurious falsehood is very high, however - they have to prove malice, plus falsehood, plus they have to prove they incurred a loss or damages. It’s almost never successful.

However lawyers often employ the threat of injurious falsehood to shut people up, for saying something their clients didn’t like, even though they know the case would be a shot duck in court.

I’m not saying that’s the case here. But it might well be.

 David Tait, left, donating a free car to the local cops - another potentially bad look in the domain of potential conflicts of interest

David Tait, left, donating a free car to the local cops - another potentially bad look in the domain of potential conflicts of interest

DIRTY TRICK #2

While we’re dissecting the mongrel lawyer playbook: When the lawyers say “our clients” they’re referring in this case to the Tait Motors company and also David Tait, the dealer principal. This is of course important because individuals, including Mr Tait, can sue for defamation. Unlike companies.

But I can’t see anywhere where Mr Tait has been identified - so that seems pretty tenuous to me. Because as I understand it, only identified persons can sue. But then, I’m not a lawyer. I could be very wrong.

It may be that Ken and Wendy Knox are in fact Lucifer and Hitler incarnate, respectively, hell-bent on destroying the sterling reputation of an honest, hard-working country business with solid community ties. Perhaps they are doing this just for kicks. I don’t know what they put in the water at Boomi.

Or, it may be that Tait Motors has screwed the Knoxes beyond breaking point, in the absence of lubrication, and then experienced a severe butt-hurt backlash off the back of the fact that the internet gives everyone a voice now, making it harder to be a corporate arsehole and get away with it with your reputation intact.

It seems to me that calling in the lawyers is spectacularly heavy-handed. Like maybe Kim Jong Un visited Goondoowindi, and gave the dealership advice about dealing with dissent.

ROLLING THE DICE & DISSENT MANAGEMENT

In my view it’s a real roll of the dice for a business to sue a customer like this. Because if they lose the case, the court basically endorses what’s been said about them, and then everyone is free to say it - until the heat death of the universe.

The message is also amplified, because reporters hate assaults on the freedom of speech, and the battlers taking on the big end of town and winning is always a nice story to report. There’s even a video that can show excerpts from, with complete legal impunity.

It’s like the world’s worst anti-advertising campaign, if Tait loses.

Holden has a reputation for breaching Australian Consumer Law. I already reported that, and why Holden will fail this year >>

The ACCC recently put Holden’s head in a vice and forced it to admit those breaches and sign a court-enforceable undertaking that’s so big and so detailed that you can see it from space. You can bet that the stench of such legal non-compliance leaches from head office into at least some dealers, over many years. It becomes a cultural thing. I make no comment on this in relation to Tait Motors specifically. But my point is: Threatening to sue an elderly couple is a bad look for a carmaker struggling to rebuild its botched reputation.

As a potential customer I would not want to stand in the Tait Motors showroom and worry that if I were to end up in a dispute with them, they would have their lawyers sue me for injurious falsehood rather than just solve my problem. Small towns are funny, too. Word gets around.

I really doubt that these potential damage assessments have been sufficiently considered by Tait Motors.

If it all does go south at 100 miles an hour, there’s the risk the dealership might bring the Holden brand into disrepute - and I’m sure that’s grounds for termination of the company’s franchise agreement, which would doubtless represent more fun and games for Shand Taylor Lawyers.

CAN COMMOM SENSE PREVAIL IN OUTBACK OZ?

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So to Tait Motors I’d suggest: Harden up. It’s an online video. If its allegations in it are from the crackpot fringe, devote the time and effort to it that such things deserve. That is: none. Ignore it. And if the allegations are substantially true, do what you can to put the pin back in the grenade, urgently, before it goes off in your faces.

I’d further suggest to David Tait, the dealer principal, that next time anyone puts up some signs alleging lemon ‘whatever’ out the front of your premises, walk out personally with a couple of coffees, let them know they’re free to protest for as long as they want. Bathrooms are inside if needed.

Let them know they’re welcome to come in and talk about the problem. Tell them you’ll do whatever you can to resolve it, personally. Turn their frowns upside-down. They’ll become ambassadors for you for ever. How hard is it?

Car dealers can be so retarded on customer care and dispute resolution. So here’s the newsflash: The loftiest ideal of customer service is not doing the minimum required under Consumer Law, and screwing customers over where possible. It’s doing whatever you can to make people happy - even if those people are unfair, unbalanced and unreasonable.

I’m tipping there’s going to be a lot more of this kinda stuff before the car industry in ‘Straya decides that it’s not 1980 any more. Holden is already a brand that’s on the nose. Holden sales are in freefall >>.

Threatening to sue customers because you don’t like what they said about you is, in my view, counter-productive, not to mention infantile and immature.

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