Toby Cagan had a lemon — a Chrysler lemon called an Aspen. This in itself is not unusual, given that company’s horrendous recall record of late. What is unique is that Toby Cagan fought back and won.
Right from the start, Ms. Cagan’s 1977 Aspen showed its colors. Stalling, a difficult steering column, sticky windows and doors, and assorted dents became its trademarks. She took the car back to the dealer, then to five other Chrysler dealers when the first one went out of business. Still no satisfaction. She wrote letters and made phone calls to the Chrysler Co. directly. All she received was the runaround.
By this time, the New Yorker was angry. “The car had been defective since the date of its purchase. After three government recalls, numerous and multiple problems and defects, I was afraid to drive this car,” she said.
So Toby Cagan filed suits against the giant Chrysler Co. in the Queens, N.Y., Civil Court and proceeded to represent herself before the judge on March 9. She marshaled her repair orders and other documentation and pleaded for justice. Mechanics backed up her allegations. Chrysler’s lawyer was particularly nettled by the evidence that the company had to recall over a million 1975-1977 vehicles for the same kinds of defects.
Before the judge decided the case, Chrysler agreed to refund Ms. Cagan’s purchase price minus $500. The refund totaled $4,933.
Down in Florida, Pat Wald was going through another kind of fighting-back experience — this one a matter of principle over a small gouge that was inflicted on many customers.
During a vacation in Key West, she and a friend walked into a Lum’s restaurant and ordered an extra-long, all-beef hot dog. The menu offered sauerkraut on request and then listed the price of the hot dog. The printed words on the same line were “Lum’s dogs…sauerkraut on request…75 cents.”
When it came time to pay the bills, the charge was $1 and included 25 cents extra for sauerkraut. While Ms. Wald was in the ladies room, her friend paid the bill.
Upon returning, Ms. Wald demanded the extra charge refunded, claiming deception. The restaurant refused. She asked to buy the menu. The restaurant declined. She asked to take a picture of the menu with her Instamatic. Refused again, this time under the patronizing eye of a policeman who seemed to side with management after a private, backroom conversation with the manager.
Pat Wald returned to her job in Miami, still unwilling to swallow her beef, as it were. She wrote a letter complaining to State of Florida’s Hotels and Restaurants Division. Inspectors visited the restaurant. Two administrative hearings were conducted. Lum’s was defiant and would not budge. A $300 fine was assessed for this two-tier pricing — the menu’s and the cashier’s. Lum’s paid the fine about one full year after the incident.
Truth in menus is a widespread problem. Menu foods listed as fresh often are frozen. Items listed are not available with some regularity. High-priced meat cuts are not in fact what is described. So Pat Wald won one for the restaurant consumers. Prices in eateries are high enough these days to warrant their being printed in full view.
Ms. Wald makes a practice, she says, of sending letters of praise and complaint when she sees a need to let companies know her views. She believes in standing tall.
With all the tumultuous inflation that seems to be ahead for consumers and with national polls showing the majority of people worrying “a great deal of the time” about the poor quality of many consumer products, standing tall should start catching on. If many people do it, corporate and government officials will start waking up to the people’s concerns.
If consumers spend a little time refusing to lump their grievances, as did Toby Cagan and Pat Wald, the rumble of consumer revolts against these economic injustices will produce change — not just for some consumers but for all of them.
So when are you going to say: “I’m not going to take it anymore”? Try it the next time you visit the gasoline station or the supermarket.