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Friday, 30 December 2011

TV show provides evidence of health and safety breaches

Ah, health and safety. A universal excuse for stopping people doing what they want, to which even the Data Protection Act has to concede first place. But of course it does a very useful job too. A recent prosecution demonstrates that you mustn't think the Health and Safety Executive won't find out if you're doing something not quite right.

A firm of stonemasons appeared on Monty Don’s Mastercraft television programme in March 2010. A viewer complained to the HSE about the working conditions shown on his or her TV, including the hard-to-miss fact that employees appeared to be working in a cloud of dust (as, presumably, stonemasons have done since time immemorial). The HSE found the dust in the workplace exceeded legal limits and served an Improvement Notice. Six months later, the HSE found that the ventilation system had not been properly checked and served a second notice. But still the dust problem remained, and on a third visit was twice the permissible level. The company pleaded guilty to failing to comply with an Improvement Notice and was fined £5,000 with £1,400 costs, despite its arguments that it took time to locate an engineer and then get the parts to fix the (Italian) machine.

If you are offered your fifteen minutes of fame, make sure you're not revealing something that the HSE will find interesting.

Taxing use of company vans

HMRC is reported to be increasing its monitoring of the use of company vans amid concerns that insufficient tax and NI contributions are being collected. More information can be found here on chartered accountants Dains LLP's website. Using a company van for private purposes should be charged to tax as a benefit in kind at £3,000 a year. The rules that apply to vans are not as strict as those for cars, an in particular private use of vans can be considered 'insignificant' and therefore tax-free. What is "insignificant" is like the length of a piece of string - but if private use isn't even governed by a policy, or being monitored, it's even more meaningless. Back in September HMRC sent questionnaires to a number of employers covering these issues and other aspects of company van use. Some sizeable tax (and NI) bills might be the result.

USA: Consolidator website's dubious practices reflect on dealers

The Internet is replete with websites that serve to bring together the offerings of traders who have things to sell: the word "parasite" came briefly to mind as I typed that, but comparison and consolidation websites can serve a useful purpose. They reduce consumer search costs, don't they? But what if they don't operate according to the sort of standards that one might expect?

The Colorado Department of Revenue Auto Industry Division has published a statement (thanks to Automotive News for the story) about how dealers might be affected when they advertise cars through sites like one called TrueCar. It noted several specific violations of advertising rules, and also the potential for "bait and switch" violations - getting a customer into the showroom by advertising a car that's already sold, then selling them something else. The important point is that in the particular case the dealers were responsible for what was being said on the TrueCar site on their behalf. They might not have been aware of what TrueCar said, and they might not have realised that it was their responsibility to ensure it was accurate.

The position in Colorado (and elsewhere in the US) is different in that motor vehicle dealers have to be licensed, and TrueCar wasn't. But that's only part of the story.  Although the law isn't exactly the same, similar principles could catch dealers out in the UK if they weren't careful.

US: Spot delivery and dealer's obligations

If you want to sell a car badly enough, you might do some daft things - rather like a lawyer starting work for a client without money on account, a mistake that I have made often enough. In the car trade, spot delivery (otherwise known as "yo-yo sales") is the equivalent, and it's driven in part by the phenomenon known as "buyer's remorse". It's a good idea to get the customer in the car and off down the road before they think twice.

Of course, there are legal issues to consider here - cooling-off periods where finance is involved, in particular. But Automotive News has a disconcerting story about a Florida dealer who put a customer in a used car under a conditional sale agreement, sent her on her way, then found that the finance company wouldn't do the deal. In that situation everything is supposed to be off, the car comes back to the dealer and the customer might end up with a more affordable set of wheels - but here the customer kept the car, and tried to make monthly payments to the dealer of the same amount as would have been due to the finance company. When the payments were refused, the customer sued the dealer (they do things differently in the USA, evidently) with what seems to be a kitchen sink full of claims, and the dealer counterclaimed.

Happily, for the dealer and for common sense, the court held against the customer. But it's still a remarkably risky way of doing business, even if problems can eventually be ironed out by the courts.

US: restriction on use of mobile phones

The land of the free is introducing restrictions on using mobile phones while driving, from 3 January (or January 3, as they say over there). But only for drivers of commercial vehicles. Fisher & Phillips LLP, a specialist, US-wide, employment law firm of whom, unsurprisingly, I had not previously heard, have a briefing about the new law here if you're interested. I like the explanation that "the device must either be mounted or otherwise securely within reach at the control panel (in the area where the vehicle controls such as climate control and radio are located)." I am old-fashioned enough to think that "vehicle controls" is apt to describe items such as accelerator, brake pedal, clutch, gear lever, indicators and light switch: climate control, which means window winder (a handle mounted on the door panel) or, ideally, hood (not in the American sense) hardly seems to me to be a vehicle control, and radio is merely a desirable but frequently inaudible (especially when using the ideal climate control technology) accessory.

I am also old-fashioned enough to loathe mobile phones and their ubiquitous use, and to question the sanity of anyone who uses one illegally while driving. But there we are.

Friday, 16 December 2011

OFT investigates private motor insurance market

Three months after it issued a call for evidence, the OFT has now launched a market investigation into the private motor insurance market. Details are on the website here. It will focus on credit vehicle hire companies and insurers' repairer networks, where it has reasonable grounds for believing that there are features of the market that distort or restrict competition, or both. Depending on what it finds, it might make a market investigation reference to the Competition Commission.

US: prosecutor alleges Hezbollah laundered money with used-car sales

As a practising solicitor, anti-money-laundering checks are the bane of my life, especially since I can't see how what I do for clients could ever possibly facilitate money laundering. Maybe I need to think a little more laterally, for Automotive News reports today that the US federal government has filed a civil complaint against Lebanese Canadian Bank and two Lebanese exchange houses, alleging that they helped launder more than $480 million for Hezbollah in a scheme involving buying and selling used cars.

Friday, 9 December 2011

A more productive use

The just-auto website tells us:
Almost half of closed former automaker sites in the US have been converted to new, productive uses, according to Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR).
Would I be right to infer that automaking is not a productive activity, I wonder?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Motor Law volume 12 number 11

The latest edition is out now - a bit late - and subscribers should be receiving their copies this morning.