94-Year-Old Farmington Woman Takes Car In For Oil Change, Leaves With $800 Bill

Kevin Hunt - The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line

6:31 PM EST, January 7, 2013


Helen Turner, a self-sufficient 94-year-old from Farmington, brought her 2004 Subaru Impreza and $100 to the local Midas for a quick oil change in early October.

She left with a bill for $800 and a warning that she should return to have the Impreza's fluids changed for an additional $400. The cost, and additional repairs, were so unexpected that Turner says another customer gave her a ride home to retrieve her checkbook to pay for them.

"I only had $100 because I only wanted an oil change," she says.

Aside from the $26.99 oil change, Midas charged $297.24 to replace four spark plugs ($63.13 each in labor costs) and $398.02 ($263.03 for labor) to replace the valve cover gasket. The extra repairs, minus a $50 discount coupon for the repairs, cost $725.25.

Turner, who says she felt fearful and intimidated, agreed only to the work the Midas representative told her was essential.

'He came out and said I need it done," she says. "I'm 94 years old. I figured, 'Gee, I need a car. I better get it fixed.' Then he said there's a lot more that needs to be done on it, bring it back next week. I told him I'm not going to bring it back right away. I was afraid of the guy because if I argued with him he'd take the car and make it worse."

Turner eventually questioned whether the work was even done. Though the itemized bill, obtained by The Bottom Line, indicated Turner was at Midas for 2 hours, 9 minutes, she says her car was worked on only a fraction of that time.

"After he changed the oil," she says, "he came in to me and said, 'Well, we're going to start on the other job now. It's going to take 2 1/2 hours. I said, 'Oh, my God, I have to sit here for 2 1/2 hours.' And he came back in 20 minutes and said, 'It's all done.' I said, 'I thought you said 2 1/2 hours. He just smiled and put the keys on the counter."

Turner's neighbor and friend, Wayne Lamarre, was immediately suspicious.

"She was supposed to get a oil, lube and filter," he says. "Period. They talked her into having this done. They said the oil was going into the spark plugs, which I really find hard to believe. And that's the second set of spark plugs she's had done on that car. Why would you change spark plugs at 31,000 miles."

So was the work needed?

'I checked," says Ron Llewellyn, general manager of Midas Auto Service New England. "The valve cover was leaking. Oil from the sparkplug tube seal, which is where the sparkplug goes in and the wire goes in, that seal was actually leaking and there was oil on the sparkplugs and the sparkplug wires. When that happens, you have to replace the spark plugs and sparkplug wires regardless of mileage and regardless of time."

OK, what about the cost? Almost $400 for four spark plugs, even though the plugs were top-of-the-line iridium ($11.18 each)?

"The first thing I did was look at the bill," he says. "There was one thing that didn't seem right: the cost of labor to replace the spark plugs."

Llewellyn says Midas uses ALLDATA, which provides information and labor estimates on vehicle repairs and diagnostics, as its guide. He also says on the day Turner visited Midas — for the first time, on the recommendation of her nephew, a longtime customer — the manager was off, replaced by a technician who priced the Impreza repairs.

ALLDATA, in fact, lists the sparkplug-replacement job at $63.13 for all four plugs, not each. "That's an error I have to take care of," says Llewellyn.

Next, the valve cover gaskets — as the name suggests, gaskets under the valve covers to prevent oil leaks — that cost Turner $398.02. Llewelleyn says the technician again misinterpreted the ALLDATA guide, overcharging by $150.

So Midas acknowledged its mistakes and promised a refund to Turner, who still isn't happy because all she wanted, she says, was an oil change. Turner later received a check for $369 that, she says, only means "my oil change cost me $400."

Her nephew, Don Winalski of Farmington, is also feeling some referral guilt.

"I was upset that she was upset," he says. "All I did was refer her to go there because I've had pretty good luck there. Maybe I learned a lesson: Do your own stuff and don't tell anyone where to go. I talked to the guy [at Midas] and told him I didn't want to get involved."

For Turner and anyone else getting an unexpected repair bill, especially during a first-time visit to a garage, here's another lesson: Always get a second opinion from a recommended garage.

In this case, Midas could have done Turner a favor and called her nephew before starting the repairs.

"You can't just ask someone who's 94 if there's someone we should talk to," says Llewelyn. "I have a guy who's 95 and still driving. If I ask to talk to his son, I'd insult him. I worry about offending people. But it might help to have a little more sensitivity to those kind of things."