ATLANTA — Used cars are for sale with major safety defects that you as the customer have no way of knowing about. It’s a Channel 2 Action News investigation that started more than two years ago.
This is a story about one used car -- and a story that stretches over five years and five states. The vehicle has changed hands at least seven times during those five years.
During that entire time it has had a critical, dangerous safety defect that was never fixed.
“I mean, this could kill people,” said the vehicle’s former owner, Chris Humphries.
That’s why this car’s story tells a larger story of a serious safety gap with the used car market.
"There’s like a sea of problematic cars that floats around the country,' said Jack Gillis, the executive Director of Consumer Federation of America.
We first became a part of the story back in 2018. Channel 2 Action News went with Humphries when he confronted the Georgia dealer where he bought a 2015 Toyota 4-runner.
Humphries discovered it was missing side impact air bags, that were never repaired after a wreck.
We met up with Humphries again this year because his returning the dangerous vehicle was not the end of the car’s story. Not by a long shot.
“It was sold 39 days later to a dealership 1.8 miles down the road. To a guy out of Chattanooga, Tennessee,” Humphries said.
It was sold to another unsuspecting customer, but still missing those airbags.
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How does that happen? For this 4-runner and many other vehicles that part of the story takes us to Texas.
Texas state law allows vehicles that have been in an accident to retain a clean title without proof that critical safety repairs have been fixed, like the airbags in our 4-runner.
“A lot of people would like to say that it’s pretty complicated but it’s actually pretty simple,” Humphries said.
That 4-runner was sold at auction by Progressive insurance with a clean Texas title. It eventually made its way to Quality Cars in Cobb County where Chris Humphries bought it, not knowing about the airbags..
“I never would have bought a salvage vehicle, I mean I wouldn’t have done it ,” Humphries said.
Jack Gillis from Consumer Federation of America has been working to make used cars more safe for decades.
“Once this gets back into the market with what we call a clean title, then it can go anywhere,” said Gillis.
That mean even if you live in a state like Georgia that has tougher title rules, you could still end up with a problem vehicle like that 4-runner.
“And that means it’s buyer beware,” Gillis said.
Which takes us back to the story of the 4-runner, and what happened after Humphries returned it.
Quality Cars was purchased by Marietta Auto. Marietta Auto sold the 4-runner to that Chattanooga man. He only found out it was missing airbags when Humphries tracked him down to warn him.
“It tore me up, I mean it broke my heart, this guy has twins on the way and he’s in the same exact situation I was,” Humphries said.
Channel 2 Investigative reporter Justin Gray went to Marietta Auto to figure out how it happened.
“It had been returned here for not having side airbags you all sold it again and it was sold again for still not having airbags?” Gray asked the sales manager.
“We didn’t sell this retail. We sold this red light at an auction,” said sales manager Toby McKinnon.
McKinnon said the problem wasn’t disclosed when they bought the dealership. He said when they found out the car lacked airbags they refunded that Chattanooga customer.
“We fully reimbursed him for any expenses he had. Then we immediately took that vehicle, sold it as a red light vehicle, disclosed this,” said McKinnon.
Red light means Marietta Auto warned any buyer at auction that the 4-runner was missing airbags.
McKinnon said he won’t buy those cars.
“I don’t care if you are getting it for a huge discount, you walk away from it because we don’t know what’s wrong with that car and we don’t want to put a customer in that car it’s just not worth it,” McKinnon said.
But our story, is not over. Because that same 4-Runner ended up for sale once again in Georgia.
It was for sale on the lot at Gravity Auto Sales in Sandy Springs.
The sales manager at Gravity told Gray there was no red-light when they purchased it from a Florida dealership and since it did not sell in 60 day, they put it back up for auction and sold it there.
Now, we don’t know where that 4-runner is, or who bought, or if those airbags have ever been replaced.
“I am trying to save peoples' lives and I am just dumbfounded at how hard it is to do,” Humphries said.
And that means this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Because it is not just one used car floating around with a safety defect.
Gillis said there are thousands of them.
“Imagine any other industry in which the sellers know that the product is dangerous, and yet they continue to sell it”, Gillis said.
“They’re everywhere. they’re everywhere,” Humphries said.
One important thing Gillis says you can do to protect yourself is to have a used car you are thinking of buying inspected by an independent mechanic.
It might cost you $50 to $100 but that $100 is a good investment to avoid a car like that 4-runner.
We received this statement from Progressive:
"Individual states determine how vehicles are titled and laws can drastically differ from state-to-state. We follow the laws and regulations set forth by the applicable state and are extremely confident we were in compliance with the Texas state law when we titled the vehicle you referenced before it was sold at auction. Since that vehicle was sold at auction, it has been re-titled and sold several times.
When a consumer is interested in buying a used vehicle, it’s suggested that they should do some research on the car. If it was previously in an accident, they should attempt to contact the shop where the vehicle was repaired to see what work was performed on the car. Additionally, for peace of mind, its highly recommended to have the vehicle inspected by a local mechanic prior to purchasing it so they understand what they are buying and making sure it is operating properly."
Cox Media Group