Lawsuit over Florida woman’s death raises specter of used car repair fraud

The news sent an all-too-familiar chill down the retired detective’s spine.

The family of a Charlotte County woman is suing a Broward mechanic accused of installing a faulty airbag in a totaled vehicle that was written off by the insurance company. The airbag didn’t deploy in an accident, and the results were deadly. Others involved in the lawsuit include the dealer who sold the car and the auctioneer who accused of hiring the Broward mechanic.

Seth Schaller, who retired from the Miramar Police Department in 2021, shook his head while reading about the lawsuit. He’d heard stories like this before, and as long as there are unscrupulous mechanics willing to cut corners to put what he calls “a stick of dynamite” where the air bag is supposed to be, he expects to hear them again.

It’s an inherent danger in buying used cars, especially those sold in auction or by no-name dealerships with too-good-to-be-true prices, according to Consumer Action, a Washington DC-based nonprofit.

Jennifer Harris, 20, of Pembroke Pines, bought such a car in 2019.

“We kicked the tires. The air conditioning blew right,” said her father, Vince Harris, who preserved his family’s story in a safety video produced by Miramar police before Schaller’s retirement. “We didn’t check on the air bags or the seat belts, things that now seem so obvious to us. We just assumed that those things worked.”

That mistake may have cost him his daughter. In a January 2017 crash, her air bag did not deploy, and her seat belt didn’t lock. Jennifer Harris did not survive.

By the time of the accident, the dealership that sold her the car was no longer in business.

The same thing happened to Destiny Marie Byassee, 22, who died in a June 2023 crash in Punta Gorda, just north of Fort Myers in Southwest Florida. According to the lawsuit filed by her family in May, the Chevy Malibu she was driving was originally owned by a car rental agency until it was totaled.

The car was auctioned off to a Delaware dealer that contracted with a Broward mechanic to make it roadworthy.

“The cost of repairing a totaled car can exceed the value of the car,” Schaller said. Airbag replacement alone starts at $1,000 and can easily rise to more than $6,000 depending on the vehicle. “It’s so tempting for these body shops to get bad air bags. I can go on eBay right now and find one for $75, and it will look fine.”

Until it’s needed.

Parts that allow counterfeit airbags to pass a cursory inspection sell for as little as $5.25 on the online retailer. Their legitimate purpose is to override a faulty warning light, but they also bypass the warning light when the airbag itself is actually faulty.

“There’s no way of knowing how many vehicles are on the road that should not be, cars with faulty air bags and seat belts that offer no protection to unsuspecting drivers,” said Schaller, who now teaches at the Miami-Dade police academy.

“I wouldn’t put a loved one in a car that’s been wrecked,” he said.

There are red flags that can alert consumers that they’re buying unsafe vehicles, and ways to check for those who suspect they might already be driving one, according to Schaller and Consumer Action.

  • The car is labeled “rebuilt” or “salvaged.” This information is often found on the title or on the sticker adhered to the inside of the driver’s door or frame.
  • The vehicle history indicates the car has been flooded. “Flooded vehicles are the number one source for bad air bags,” Schaller said.
  • There is no vehicle history.

“If it’s been repaired by the insurance company, it’s much less likely you’ll see this problem,” Schaller said.

To avoid buying a compromised vehicle, or to investigate the installation of a faulty or counterfeit airbag:

  • Order a vehicle history report from a service such as CARFAX or AutoCheck, and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).
  • Have any used car you’re considering inspected by a trusted technician and body shop before you agree to buy it, even if it has a clean vehicle history report.
  • Check invoices to verify the repair shop purchased the air bag directly from the manufacturer. (This ensures the air bag is new, and will work correctly in your vehicle.)
  • Take it to a dealership of the vehicle’s same make, or a reputable, trusted mechanic.

“If you’re going to put your kids in that car, it’s the only way to know,” Schaller said.

The lawsuit filed by Byassee’s family remains pending in Broward. No attorneys are listed for Jumbo Automotive, the Hollywood mechanic accused of installing a counterfeit airbag. Jumbo’s owner, Haim Levy, has denied working on the vehicle but has declined interview requests.

Rafael Olmeda can be reached at rolmeda@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4457. 

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