Military Couple Fights Car Company's Overseas Warranty Exception

FILE PHOTO: 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited 4dr SUV (Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.)
FILE PHOTO: 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited 4dr SUV (Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.)

A military couple whose U.S.-purchased 2013 Toyota RAV4 SUV experienced major mechanical problems while they were stationed in Germany is hoping the car company will be forced either to replace their vehicle or refund their money.

Army Sgt. John Snell and his wife Christina purchased the vehicle in Georgia before their permanent change of station to Germany, according to their lawyer.

They were told by the dealership that the warranty and protections against catastrophic vehicle defects, known as "lemon laws," would apply while they were stationed overseas, said T. Michael Flinn, the couple's attorney.

But when the vehicle experienced major mechanical problems caused by a faulty anti-lock brake system actuator, the dealership in Germany was unable to make the repairs in under 30 days -- the timecap required by Georgia's law before the car is declared a "lemon," or unsafe vehicle.

Under that law, Toyota is required to replace the vehicle, but the company instead claimed that the warranty did not apply because the Snells took the vehicle out of the U.S.

Although a Georgia arbitration panel ruled last year that Toyota must replace the vehicle, the company is appealing the decision. A hearing on the matter will likely be held in Georgia early next year.

The struggle highlights a loophole in the lemon laws, said Rosemary Shahan, who leads the lobbying group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

Instead of protecting service members, the laws allow companies to take advantage of military families by inadvertently excluding them from protection measures when they are stationed overseas, she said.

"When people are in the military, they don't surrender their rights," said Shahan, who was married to a Navy JAG officer for 20 years. "They bought this car in the United States, they are U.S. citizens ... I just don't quite understand why Toyota is doing this."

Shahan said she is working with Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, to look at legislation that could close that loophole, although no movement on that is likely to happen this year, she said. Nelson's staff did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Toyota officials said in a statement that they are working directly with the Snell family, which is still driving the now repaired vehicle at their new home at Fort Benning, Georgia. Toyota officials said they cannot comment on the case, but that they extend a special warranty to service members stationed overseas.

"Toyota's policy is to provide members of the U.S. military serving overseas with goodwill warranty coverage, including for services performed outside the geographic region of a specific limited warranty," they said in a statement.

The Snells' attorney contends that the original warranty does cover the Snells. He said Toyota's protest of the ruling granting the Snells a replacement vehicle comes out of fear.

"I believe Toyota is afraid that if they allow military families to use lemon law, they might get hit for more lemon law claims," Flinn said.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at

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