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Vt. Manslaughter Case Serves as Industry Learning Opportunity

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A Vermont woman died in a car accident in July 2014, and this past August, the shop technician who approved her vehicle in a state inspection two months prior to the crash was arrested for manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

The case, now widely publicized throughout the automotive repair industry, alleges that the tech signed off on the vehicle despite knowing it was unfit for the road. The technician pleaded not guilty.

It’s an alarming case, says Paul Fiore, director of government affairs for the Auto Care Association. Fiore has no more details on the charges than the general public, but he says the specifics don’t matter as much as the overall effect this news could have on the industry as a whole.

“It’s a terrible situation, and not the kind of thing we want to hear about,” he says. “This isn’t the way we want this industry being in the news.”

And that’s the crux of it: In an industry already working to separate itself from a long-sullied reputation, auto repair doesn’t need the negative publicity, Fiore says. However, the industry would be remiss if its members didn’t take this as a learning opportunity and a chance to prove consumer perceptions wrong.

“There’s a lot here to learn from— training, the importance of inspections, procedures in the shop, hiring practices,” Fiore says. “Shops need to not only prevent these issues from ever coming up at their own businesses, but they also need to ensure that their own customers have no doubts about their integrity and ability to do their jobs.”

THE CASE

Steve Jalbert is a 30-year-old technician at AJ’s Sunoco in Barre, Vt., the gas station-service center owned by his parents. Jalbert issued the inspection sticker for Donald Ibey’s 1992 Chevrolet Corsica on May 9, 2014.

According to court records, Ibey, 86, was driving with his wife, Elizabeth, 82, down a steep hill when he “heard a pop” and lost control of the vehicle. Elizabeth Ibey died in the accident.

In the investigation that followed, Jalbert voluntarily provided three sworn, recorded statements in which he admitted failing to properly inspect the vehicle. He said he never put the vehicle on a lift, or took it on a test drive.

Inspections performed by the Department of Motor Vehicles investigators showed that multiple vehicle issues found following the accident were “more than likely” present at inspections as far back as 2013. (AJ’s Sunoco had passed the vehicle each year from 2012–2014.)

In court, the defense’s lawyer questioned how the state will be able to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that there was a link to the state inspection and the crash two months later, according to a report from Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.

The Jalbert family has elected to not speak publicly about the accusations until the court case runs its course.

THE CASE FOR STATE VEHICLE INSPECTION

The end result of this incident—a motorist killed due to vehicle failure—is a clear indication for the need of state-required periodic motor vehicle inspections, says Bob Redding, the Automotive Service Association’s (ASA) Washington, D.C., representative. Regardless of the outcome of the case, he says vehicles should be properly inspected and deemed to be completely safe before putting the public at risk.

“As tragic as this case is … it did demonstrate that the system for inspections works,” Redding says. “There are rules and guidelines and laws to adhere to, and they are there for a purpose. This was a case where someone allegedly did not perform the inspection correctly, the inspectors did their job in following up, and he was charged.”

More than 30 states used to have required periodic motor vehicle inspections. Now that number is at 16. Redding is concerned that more states haven’t reinstated these programs, as the good provided far outweighs any cost or inconvenience to the driver.

“These inspections aren’t going to catch everything, and there’s still going to be human error that creeps in, but what it does is eliminate those big-picture issues that lead to accidents, deaths or injuries,” he says.

PREVENTING DISASTER AT YOUR SHOP

Don’t put your business at risk, Fiore says.

“Bad apples are bad apples, but there are many ways you can protect yourself against this type of liability,” he says.

The first, he says, is fairly obvious: be diligent in your hiring practices.

But a business needs to go further. Any vehicle inspection, particularly those pertaining to the safety of a vehicle, should be a thorough, written-out process in the shop that must be followed on each and every vehicle. And your team must be properly trained—not only technically, but also on the processes and the importance of following them.

“Processes eliminate the worry of people missing something or skipping things or just being plain lazy,” he says. “Fraudulent, negligent, lazy—it doesn’t matter the reasons [for mistakes], he’s still liable. Shops need to have systems in place to prevent that as much as possible.”

Perception and reputation, Fiore says, aren’t as affected by these cases as they are by the everyday interactions in your shop. Run your business like a business, and it’ll show—and customers will notice.

“In all my time lobbying at the state and national level, I’d say that people grow up with their local shop and, nine out of 10 times, they have good vibes about them,” he says. “That doesn’t come from shoddy repair work. It’s speaks to the good feelings and good memories people have.”

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