Stuck in Neutral

Lithia Ford case in holding pattern


The case of Baxter v. Lithia Ford, first reported in the Boise Weekly (BW, News, "Have I Driven a Ford Lately?", Nov. 9, 2005), remains unresolved as battle lines are drawn.

A lawsuit, filed in District Court on December 12, charges the dealership with exploiting 82-year old Frank Baxter's dementia in order to take Baxter's $32,000 Toyota RAV-4 in a straight-across trade for a $15,000 Ford Focus. The action was initiated by Baxter's daughter Jan, his legal guardian, who is represented by attorney Paul Fitzer of Foley, Freeman, Borton and Stern. It includes provision for punitive damages, which could amount to a maximum of $250,000 under Idaho law.

Frank Baxter's status as a decorated veteran of World War II has also brought the case to the attention of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), both locally and at their national headquarters. The official relationship between Ford and the DAV goes back to the 1920s, and involves the purchase of Ford vans for DAV use. Brian Alspach, a supervisor and national service officer for the VA regional office, first learned of the dispute from the Idaho State Division of Veterans Services and forwarded information on to Gary Weaver, the DAV national director of communication. Weaver in turn contacted Sandra Nicholls, manager of charitable contributions for the Ford Motor Co.

According to an e-mail from Nicholls to Weaver which was obtained by BW, Nicholls sent an unnamed regional service director to visit Lithia. The correspondence states the dealership's initial claim to the Ford representative was that the RAV-4 was a used vehicle worth considerably less than full list price, making the discrepancy in trade-in value "at most" no more than $2,700, rather than the $18,000 the Baxter family claims. The lawsuit claims the dealership knew it was receiving a car that had been driven 16 miles when Frank Baxter traded it in. Jan Baxter has also refused Lithia's offer to simply compensate the family for the full price Frank paid for the Toyota. Her lawsuit cites sections of Idaho law that prohibit "unconscionable contract" and "unjust enrichment," given Frank's noticeable dementia.

Joseph R. Davis, Lithia's senior counsel in Medford, Oregon, also wrote a letter to the Baxters' lawyer, dated November 10, assuring him that "Lithia Ford of Boise told Mr. Baxter's children that if they would provide appropriate guardianship papers or other evidence of Mr. Baxter's condition they would be happy to promptly rectify the matter." The letter protests that without such evidence the dealership can "be threatened with suit and lambasted in the press" with little defensive recourse.

But such lambasting seems to have gained momentum. Alspach said that Lithia's characterization of the RAV-4 as used "is a blatant lie" and believes that the dealership "made out like bandits" during the trade-in. "We're just going to keep on them," Alspach said. "I think if we keep pounding on Lithia they'll come to their senses."

Lithia Ford General Manager Mike Springer did not return repeated calls from BW by press time, but we did speak with Lithia spokesman Dan Retzlaff, who said of the case, "We're hoping for a quick resolution, but you never know. Actually, I should just say 'no comment.' These things will work themselves out." Retzlaff added that he enjoyed BW's original article. "I thought it was fabulous. It was amusing, and the picture just spoke a thousand words."

In the meantime, the case has also raised the ire of some local veterans. Tom Conn, a 59-year-old disabled Vietnam vet, said of the case, "I'm pissed." He told BW that as a former police officer and auto dealer parts manager, he complained directly to the DAV that "I'll walk with my cane before riding in a Ford van" until the company and dealership offer a full refund and public apology. Conn said he has "told as many vets as I could" at a Christmas party held at the Veterans Center on December 15, and that he might take even more action.

"I'd like to go down to Lithia and raise holy hell but I'm a law-abiding citizen," Conn said. However, he added he may "picket their perimeter" if the weather cooperates. In the meantime, Conn is making his feelings known to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Vietnam Veterans of America, and veterans' Web sites around the country.

After reading the initial article, Veronica Roby of Boise also took the initiative and contacted BW with her assessment of Frank Baxter's mental condition, which Lithia has disputed. She said that on September 16, Baxter "blew through a red light" at the intersection of 13th and State streets, striking Roby's car. After the crash, Roby said, "Mr. Baxter did not know which direction he had been traveling, nor did he even realize that he had hit my car. Because of his illness, it was frustrating and difficult to get information." Roby called Baxter "extremely sweet, but extremely confused. If anything, I felt very sad when he got out of his car and I saw who hit me."

Jan Baxter confirmed the crash with BW, and said Baxter's Ford Escort sits in Lithia collision shop, while Jan Baxter refuses to authorize repairs to the vehicle. Lithia has apparently sold the RAV-4 but the whereabouts of a handgun that Frank had placed in its glove compartment remain unknown. The DAV's Alspach points out that anyone taking possession of the firearm through transfer of the SUV's title has violated federal statues on gun ownership.

An article on the Baxter case ran in the December 13 issue of the Idaho Statesman, but failed to credit Boise Weekly with breaking the story first. Statesman reporter Joe Estrella admitted that he had initially read about it in these pages. He said that his paper would normally acknowledge break sources but did not do so "because the lawsuit was filed and that's what [our] story was about."