I often hear from consumers who think they have resolved their legal problems on their own but are stuck on one last detail: The manufacturer or dealer won’t pay up. The problem? If the settlement offer isn’t in writing, it probably isn’t real.

Imagine that you bought a car so defective that the dealer told you it was a lemon. The dealer gives you the phone number of someone at the manufacturer and after a few phone calls, you are told they will take care of you. But the person you are dealing with is not always reachable by phone and you have no proof your phone calls ever happened.

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Or you bought a defective product and the store you bought it from gave you the number of a manager at corporate who promised to take care of you. But now, again, the settlement has never made it past the talking stage.

I encounter this all the time and often hear of it from other attorneys as well. 99% of the time, these kinds of settlements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Because there is no paper.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, ask the other party to reduce their offer to writing. If they do, then you might have something (assuming it is worded properly). If they refuse or fail to do that, you can assume they are not intending to take care of you.

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Many times, the people in customer service have no other goal than to waste your time, hoping to run out the clock on your warranty or to simply get you to stop bothering people at the dealer. When I have told people in this situation to demand their “offer” in writing, I often hear back about how the other side dithered. And dithered. And continued dithering. And not in the audio sense.

I have gotten involved in cases like this and have had the opportunity to take sworn testimony from people who made verbal offers which never came to fruition. They often claim the statements were never made or that the consumer misunderstood what was being discussed. But one thing I have found is that all along, the customer service rep was taking notes - writing down everything the consumer had said which could be used in favor of the manufacturer.

“Customer said she likes the car,” is duly noted but the second half, “except when it keeps catching on fire,” is not. Or, “Customer admits he yelled at sales manager,” but not “when sales manager put his hand on wife’s breast,” and so on.

Want to try and settle your own case? Go ahead. But do what an attorney would do: Ask for any offers to be reduced to writing. Until they do that, assume they are talking for their own amusement and nothing more.

Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto

Hear my podcast on iTunes: Lehto’s Law

Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.

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