A vehicle's accident history is one of the most important pieces of information to know about a car both when it is in working condition and when it experiences operational challenges. In much the same way a doctor looks to a patient's medical history to assess future likelihood of disease or to troubleshoot the source of a present ailment, a would-be buyer looks to a vehicle's accident history to estimate the existence of invisible weaknesses in an auto's structure or function, and a mechanic uses a vehicle's accident history to facilitate diagnosis and advise on repairs.
Both federal and California state law prohibit auto dealers from knowingly or negligently making false representations to a buyer or potential buyer in the course of selling a vehicle. While some misrepresentations are less serious than others, any kind of false statement or representation regarding a vehicle's accident history is always a serious offense.
Seller should exercise caution not only when making outright statements or representations regarding a vehicle's condition but also when setting a price or negotiating a sale. With the availability and standardization of tools like CarFax and Kelly Bluebook, it is easy to make misrepresentations regarding a vehicle's condition a la its accident history without saying anything at all.
Likewise, ignorance of a vehicle's accident history is no defense if the seller either should have known about the history or represents that it knows information about the vehicle's history when it knows it does not have that information. For example, a dealer can make a fraudulent representation by assuring a buyer that a used vehicle has no accident history before the dealer even checks on the vehicle's history. There may be no harm if the report turns out to be clean, but if there ends up being an accident or damage on the vehicle's history report, the dealer's failure to check the report prior to making assurances can be evidence of the dealer's corrupt business practices.
A dealer can also deceive a buyer by pointing exclusively to a clean CarFax-type report as evidence of the car's lack of accident history all while knowing the vehicle was in a recent accident. Since accidents can take around five to six months to appear on an auto report like that obtained from CarFax or AutoCheck, dealers are able to sell a recently damaged and repaired vehicle with a ‘clean' accident report.
Of course, this practice is considered legally fraudulent, and a buyer who is tricked into paying a premium for a vehicle with undisclosed accident history or damages has a strong legal claim against such a seller. With the right approach and documentation, a duped buyer should be able to force a dealer into undoing the sale of ‘bad' vehicle without having to go to court. If the dealer refuses to acknowledge the fraud or otherwise refuses to accept the vehicle's return, the buyer is entitled to force the return of the vehicle and to cover all monies paid to the dealer in addition to costs and attorney fees associated with pursing the matter through the courts.
Unfortunately, getting a dealer to accept the return of a vehicle even when the dealer is clearly at fault is difficult and can take a fair amount of time and require the help of an attorney, which may be an out-of-pocket expense for the buyer if the dealer settles the matter outside of court. It is therefore prudent to exercise caution when purchasing a used vehicle, especially if the dealer came into possession of the vehicle within the past five or six months. It is good practice for buyers to maintain all documentation related to the offer and purchase of a used vehicle and to have the vehicle examined by a third party mechanic and auto body shop prior to making a deal.