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Have I Driven a Ford Lately?

Lithia accused of fleecing veteran, targeted by vets' groups

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On September 9, 82-year old Frank Baxter made a wrong turn with his newly purchased 2005 Toyota RAV-4. Baxter, a retired pipe fitter and decorated veteran, intended to pull into Petersen Motors on Fairview for a minor mechanical adjustment. But with eyesight and judgment both failing, he wound up on the lot of Lithia Ford instead. A few hours later, Baxter left Lithia as the owner of a Ford Focus. Family members say the dealership had traded Baxter his $28,000 original vehicle for a $13,000 car, straight across.

Although the elder Baxter had been diagnosed with cognitive impairment and dementia a few years ago, help from a nursing program has allowed the widower to live in his own home. His condition has remained mild enough to permit him to pick up friends and drive them to Sunday church services, his main motivation for buying the new Toyota. Using his retirement savings and veterans benefits, he was able to purchase the car with cash.

The night after the transaction at Lithia, Frank complained to his son Forrest that the Toyota had been stolen. During further family investigation, Frank turned up some papers from Lithia Ford. The next day, his older son Bob telephoned and spoke with a Lithia sales manager Randy Price, who confirmed the transaction. Bob tells BW he told Price his father was "too incompetent" to understand the deal, and he requested its cancellation. He says Price refused, so Frank's daughter Jan faxed over a similar request. On the evening of Sunday, September 11, Lithia general manager Mike Springer called Jan at home. After a brief conversation, Jan says Springer terminated the call by saying he would not deal with her again. This reporter was present in the Baxter home at the time of the call.

The next day, Bob says, he called Springer, who offered to take back the Focus at trade-in value while keeping the Toyota--still a net loss of over $12,000 to the Baxter. With communication between Bob and Springer breaking down, the Baxters say, the Lithia manager insisted that he would only speak with Frank, even when informed that the children were now taking over power of attorney for their father. After receiving similar answers from Lithia headquarters in Oregon, the Baxters contacted Boise attorney Paul Fitzer of Foley, Freeman, Borton and Stern, who sent an official demand letter to Lithia on Monday, October 31. The dealership has until November 10 to respond before Fitzer files suit.

Baxter's case may prove to be a dramatic local example of what some say is a growing problem: economic exploitation of the mentally ill, especially people suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia. Beve Bryant with the Better Business Bureau of southwest Idaho says her organization sees an increasing number of scams through the mail or telemarketing, especially ones that extract personal information such as credit card or checking account numbers. The confused and mentally ill, she says, are "easier prey because they're kind-hearted and it's really difficult for them to say 'no' to folks."

At the same time, Bryant acknowledges the difficulty mentally ill customers can pose to business owners. "How do I know, when someone walks into my business, whether they have a mental illness or not?" she asks. "They don't have it written on their foreheads ... It's like an invisible illness. So how do you hold companies responsible for something they shouldn't really be responsible for?"

Idaho Deputy Attorney General Brett DeLange tells BW he rejects Bryant's argument. "It may not be within [a retailer's] purview to make a diagnosis, but if you know that someone doesn't have the capacity to make a reasonable judgment because of a medical condition like dementia, that's too cute of an answer," he says. "Under Idaho law, a person without understanding has no power to make a contract." As to protests that car dealerships shouldn't have to train staff on assessing mental capacity, DeLange says, "The focus shouldn't be on that. But you should acknowledge the reality here, that with a gentleman suffering from dementia, there's no power to make a contract. It's unfortunate if the dealership did it. It's sad."

Attorney Paul Fitzer says he is confident the Baxter family has Idaho law on its side. Specifically, he cites provisions prohibiting businesses from enacting "unconscionable contracts" or seeking "unjust enrichment."

"It's also a tort claim, and a 'tort of outrage' that may involve punitive damages for fraud and inducement," Fitzer says. "There [are] standards of care and responsibility in every profession. In this case, they knew that and did the deal anyway to take advantage of him." Assessing the likelihood of a success in a lawsuit, Fitzer predicts, "[Lithia] would be ridiculous to fight this thing."

But even before Baxter's case has the chance to head to court, it is raising the ire of veterans' groups. Brian Alspach of the Disabled Veterans of America (DAV) learned of the case through the Idaho State Division of Veterans Services, which had been contacted by Bob Baxter. Alspach tells BW he is surprised and outraged at the situation, especially given "the long-standing partnership between the DAV and Ford," going back to the 1920s. Alspach says the DAV has historically been a loyal purchaser of Ford vans and that a significant portion of the funds from the annual Veteran's Day forget-me-not poppy sales generally goes into purchasing and maintaining these vehicles. Of the alleged swindle, Alspach concludes, "It's just plain wrong."

Both Alspach and the Baxters have also contacted the national headquarters of the DAV, which they say is considering the launch of a nationwide media campaign about the case. In an e-mail response to Jan Baxter, Gary Weaver, the DAV national director of communication, writes, "When I became aware of this situation with your father, I was livid. DAV has a long-standing, positive relationship with Ford Motor Company, and when I informed Sandra Nicholls at Ford of the situation, she was equally outraged at the behavior of this dealer. Ford has great respect for veterans and will not tolerate this kind of unethical conduct." With the letter, Weaver attached the draft copy of a press release under the heading "Think Ford, Think Bilk the Vet."

When BW attempted to contact Sandra Nicholls, who is an executive at the Ford Motor Company Fund, Ford headquarters in Michigan provided a number that was out of service. Upon calling Lithia Ford in Boise, we received an answering machine message saying General Manager Mike Springer is "out saving the world, one promo car at a time." When later reached for comment, Springer would not comment on the record about any of the allegations against his company.

Meanwhile, as the DAV counsels patience, Bob Baxter remains outraged at Lithia Ford. "They pounced on him like a spider on a fly," he says. While admitting that "assessing someone for dementia would be difficult," Frank Baxter's oldest son explains, "In Dad's case, anyone who spends two minutes with him would realize that he's not really here with the rest of us, not understanding questions, misinterpreting things, repeating himself, and so on.

"If they're notified that someone is incompetent the next day, I thought it was pretty reasonable to say he made a mistake and return it for full price minus a bit of a loss. But it seems really greedy to want to get all of his money." He cites, with irony, Lithia Ford's vision statement, which includes the assertion, "We hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards in how we treat our employees, our customers, and our business partners."

As to the prospects of a lawsuit, Baxter says he's confident that good will be achieved no matter the outcome. "Even if we go to court and lose, at least the public's aware that there's a new predator in town."

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