By Ryan C. Wood
Do you know anyone that has a disabling device in his or her car or do you yourself have a disabling device in your car? These devices are showing up in more and more states. The disabling device is installed in your car when you purchase a car, most likely at dealerships that act as the finance company as well. The dealerships normally install these devices on buyers who have low credit scores to protect the dealership/lender’s investment. These disabling devices act as an anti-theft device but also have GPS capabilities. What normally happens is that the consumers who purchase the car will have to pay on time each month to get a code from the lender. This code will allow the buyers to keep the car running another month. If the buyer misses a payment the lender will disable the device and the buyer will not be able to start the car and the GPS will provide the lender with the location of where to pick up the car to repossess it. This sounds incredibly dangerous. What if you were driving in the middle of the freeway and your car is disabled? If you have one of these devices on your car you need to know what your rights are after you file for bankruptcy.
In the case of In re Hampton (Hampton v. Yam’s Choice Plus Autos, Inc.), 319 B.R. 163 (Bankr. E. D. Ark. 2005), Toni Hampton purchased a car from Yam’s Choice Plus Autos, Inc. (“Yam’s”). There was a PayTeck device installed on the car. Ms. Hampton thought that it was only an anti-theft device and only learned that she would need a new code to start the car each month after she made her first payment. She made her payments on time and had no issues with her car. She filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection on October 8, 2002. Ms. Hampton’s Chapter 13 plan included payments to the lender for her car. Her plan was confirmed and she made her Chapter 13 payments on time. After she filed for bankruptcy Ms. Hampton indicated she was barely able to get her car working for more than 2 weeks at a time. In the beginning, her bankruptcy lawyer’s employee tried to call Yam’s to get the correct codes. Yam’s indicated Ms. Hampton would need to call in to get the code. Ms. Hampton called in every month to get the code but most of the codes were incorrect and her car was shut off. It made her constantly late for work and there were times when she had to get rides from co-workers and friends and family because her car just would not start. Yam’s was aware of the issues but did nothing to help Ms. Hampton. The bankruptcy court in this case concluded that Yam’s violated the automatic stay. Under 11 U.S.C. §362(a)(3) filing bankruptcy acts as a stay of “any act… to exercise control over property of the estate…” Installing a device in a car which prevents the bankruptcy filer from starting the car is an exercise of control over the estate property which violates the automatic stay. The court awarded Ms. Hampton damages she incurred during this period but did not award punitive damages. The court clarified that while Yam’s violated the automatic stay in this situation, the existence of the disabling device would not in itself violate the automatic stay if Yam had taken proper precautions and provided Ms. Hampton with the correct codes every month. If there were issues with the device itself, Yam’s should have fixed it.
In a similar case, In re Crawford (Crawford v. Credit Acceptance Corporation), 2008 WL5427713 (Bankr. S.D. Ill. December 2008), Ms. Crawford’s finance company repossessed her car. She filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and the car was returned to her but she started having problems with her car immediately after because of the malfunction of the disabling device on her car. She sued the finance company for violation of the automatic stay for not repairing the disabling device and the courts agreed with her. The court held that the finance company violated the automatic stay because they failed to ensure the car “operated free from any interference from the disabling device.”
So the bottom line is this: you have the right to drive your car free from worry that it will stop at any time and to also drive your car without having to worry that your car will not start so long as you continue making your payments on time either on your own or through your Chapter 13 plan. If your lender deliberately provides you with the wrong start codes or does not help you if there is a malfunction of the disabling device they are violating the automatic stay and your bankruptcy lawyer will be able to file a motion or adversary proceeding for violating the automatic stay.