- In 2019 the high court told Renault to repay the full purchase price on a new KWID – and then some – after it went in for repairs three times in three months.
- Companies should not be allowed to "bully unsuspecting consumers to accept flawed goods, and raise all sort of spurious defences and denials", that court said.
- That was a mistake, the Supreme Court of Appeal now says.
- That doesn't mean you can't hand back a dodgy new car after asking for repairs, though.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
In mid-2019, the high court in Pretoria gave Renault a hiding.
After finding an entry-level KWID had been sold with "too many flaws or defects for a new vehicle", it ordered the carmaker, a dealership, and a third-party finance company to repay the full price of the car the buyer had been driving for 18 months, plus interest she would have paid, plus punitive costs.
Such large companies should not be allowed to "bully unsuspecting consumers to accept flawed goods, and raise all sort of spurious defences and denials", said the high court.
This week the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) overturned that decision, saying it had been incorrect in law as well as in fact, and left the buyer to pay her own legal costs.
Along the way, though, the SCA rejected a number of Renault's defences, including an argument that it would require the buyer of a new car to decide between returning it at the first sign of trouble, or asking for flaws to be fixed – after which the option of a refund would be closed.
Abigail Wentzel, the SCA ruling shows, was never happy with the Renault KWID she bought from multi-brand franchise Zambezi, at a price of a little over R176,000 including a motorplan and metalic paint job. As soon as she started it on the showroom floor she noticed a strange sound which, she says, she was reassured was just the car's navigation system turning on.
That was in the first week of December 2017. Before the end of that month, with 270km on the clock, she took the car back and an immobiliser unit was replaced. But she still couldn't use her phone via the car's built-in Bluetooth at anything over 70km an hour, something Renault later said was due to noise from the car being driven at higher speeds.
Before the end of January the car – now with 2,863km on the odometer – was back for work on the brakes and the driver-side window. Two days later Wentzel took a photo of an unclipped roof rail. Towards the end of February she reported unbearable noise when driving, and an immobiliser warning light. She took it back for repairs again, and the car was in the garage for five days.
Before what would be the third and final bout of repairs, Wentzel turned to the Motor Industry Ombudsman of South Africa (Miosa) for help. More than six months later, that ombud declined to help, on the basis that she had already gone to court. That, said the SCA, was wrong, and "very disturbing", of the ombud.
The high court was a lot more helpful. It ordered Renault, its dealer, and the financier to repay more than R250,000 for the returned car, the full amount Wentzel would have paid over the life of her loan.
"In my view, the vehicle right from the onset, was simply not of good quality, any version to the contrary must be rejected, as I do," said Judge Moses Mavundla in judgment.
Appeals judge Dumisani Zondi did not agree, saying "serious disputes of fact" – including what the defects were, and whether Renault had ultimately fixed them – could not be ignored. Critically, Wentzel stopped formally complaining about the car after the third set of repairs, and discussion with the dealer principal about trading the car in for a Renault Clio (which she declined because the dealer offered her book value for the KWID) did not count.
Even had that not been the case, said Zondi, the high court had ignored the fact that Renault could fairly deduct "a reasonable amount for the use of the vehicle" during the 18 months she had it, if there were to be a refund.
The Consumer Protection Act, under which Wentzel brought her claim, covers refunds in cases of dire trouble, said Zondi – but that doesn't include "every rattle or unfamiliar noise".
"A defective module may be readily replaced, as occurred with the immobiliser. Does that render the vehicle defective so as to entitle the purchaser to return it and demand repayment of the purchase price? Clearly not."
In one aspect though – potentially important to others with similar claims in future – the SCA and high court agreed. Renault argued that once Wentzel had asked for repairs, she no longer had the option to change her mind and demand a full refund.
That, said the SCA, is not correct.
(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)