AG's Office: Gatorland Toyota settles in complaint investigation, to pay $95,000 to affected customers
Published: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 6:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 6:15 p.m.
Gatorland Toyota has agreed to pay $95,000 total to 76 customers following an investigation by the Florida Attorney General’s Office into complaints from senior citizens of high-pressure and deceptive sales practices, Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Thursday.
The Attorney General’s Office investigated sales from May 1, 2010, through Oct. 1, 2013, in which customers alleged they were pressured unfairly to purchase new vehicles, misled about the value of their trade-ins, believed they were buying a different specific vehicle and initially believed they would pay a lower price than what they ultimately agreed to pay.
According to the settlement agreement, the 76 customers slated to receive payments were identified based on the salespeople and dates of the sales, the age of the customers and purchase prices.
In the voluntary agreement signed Feb. 20, the dealership and its owner — Gettel Enterprises of Bradenton — deny any wrongdoing and contend adequate disclosures and fair sales practices were used in the vehicle sales.
Gatorland Toyota also contends that it voluntarily changed sales practices and procedures and refunded another $35,000 to consumers since the investigation began.
According to the agreement, Gatorland terminated four employees during the investigation, including the general manager, two sales managers and a salesperson who were involved in many of the transactions that led to the complaints.
Former General Manager Tony Cutrone told The Sun in July that he was fired because “another employee did something that he shouldn’t do and they had to release me.” Cutrone would not elaborate on what the employee did or who it was.
Asked if he was being held responsible for what another employee did, he said, “You’re always responsible when you’re the boss.”
In addition to the $95,000 in payments to customers, Gatorland agreed to pay the Attorney General’s Office $50,000 for investigative costs, attorneys’ fees and future compliance monitoring.
“The purchase or lease of an automobile is a major financial obligation, and my office will enforce Florida’s laws in order to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive dealership practices,” Bondi said in a news release. “Consumers deserve to have complete and accurate information so they can make informed decisions when purchasing a vehicle.”
Gatorland also agreed to comply with the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, clearly disclose costs and terms of products and services in advertising, and come up with written policies and procedures to ensure compliance.
Gatorland issued the following written statement: “Immediately upon learning of concern from the Attorney General’s Office, we reviewed and addressed the matter, including termination of those employees directly responsible as well as those in supervisory roles. Further, we strengthened our internal policies and procedures to ensure that there is no recurrence of this situation. We worked cooperatively and transparently with the AG’s office, and have now willingly entered into an agreement with the AG that will resolve the issue. We thank the Attorney General’s Office for their professionalism on the matter.”
Gainesville attorney Robert Lash represented four clients against Gatorland. One reached an individual settlement that reduced the total amount owed and the monthly payment.
“It seems in a majority of cases they were led to believe something and actually got something different when they got the contract,” Lash said. “The complaints are that they kept them in the dealership for an inordinate amount of time and then when they finally got documents, they were different than what they thought, but they signed anyway because they’d been there so long.”
Duane Smith of Keystone Heights said he helped his sister-in-law, Francis Barlow, 71, of Interlachen, cancel $5,000 worth of additional road hazard and gap insurance after she paid $32,000 for a new Corolla in February 2013.
The basic 2013 Corolla has a starting Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price of $16,200.
Smith said Barlow came in for repairs and that a salesman kept trying to get her to look at a new car after she repeatedly said she wasn’t interested.
“He was relentless,” Smith said. “He told her it cost a lot to get her car repaired and it wouldn’t be safe. She’s by herself. She’s 70 years old, so it influenced her. Little by little he browbeat her into buying this other car.”
Smith said Barlow didn’t tell anyone for a long time because she was embarrassed about what had happened. When he called the Attorney General’s Office in December, he was told it was too late for Barlow to be added to the settlement agreement.
The investigation into Gatorland started with the Gainesville office of the Attorney General’s Office Seniors vs. Crime project, which has volunteers in 35 offices around the state that help seniors with consumer complaints.
The Gainesville office, located at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, received the first complaint on Sept. 22, 2010.
According to the case file, Teresa Branez, 81, came in for an oil change on June 5, 2010, and was approached by salesman Juracy “Louis” Gaetan about buying a new car. She reported that she said many times she did not want a new car but, “for reasons she still does not completely understand,” signed a sales contract under pressure to buy a Toyota Camry XLE.
The file says Branez refused to take the car and drove home in her old car. Shortly thereafter, the salesman delivered the new car, but it was a lower-end blue model Camry at the price of a champagne-colored model she thought she had been sold. She also said she was told by finance manager Jesse Scheff that she could not cancel warranties she later did cancel with the help of Seniors vs. Crime, according to the file.
The next complaint would not come until 11 months later and the third one a year after that. The next two would come within two months.
Seniors vs. Crime office manager John Caravella previously told The Sun that he took notice of Gatorland because the program had not received complaints about any other local car dealers. Also striking, he said, was that five people found the program — which, he said, few people know about — leading him to believe there might be others in similar situations.
A confidential source who worked at Gatorland heard about the complaints and referred additional customers to the program.
Among the complaints, the customers and Seniors vs. Crime alleged that:
Final sales prices were thousands of dollars more than discussions had indicated they would be.
Car buyers were charged for added amenities they had not received.
They were charged for extended warranties and service contracts they had said they did not want, or were told they could not cancel.
Many did not receive the federally required manufacturer window sticker called a Monroney label that includes the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.
Four of the customers came in for oil changes or repairs with no intention of buying a new car.
The office helped 13 people recover nearly $92,000 in refunds and canceled add-ons from April 2012 to July 2013, after which it was instructed to refer all complaints to the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
“I’m happy that after two years there has been resolution with Gatorland Toyota,” Caravella said. “Seniors vs. Crime’s concern will be with any future consumer problems or those in the past who have not been addressed by this settlement.