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Huffmaster v. Robinson

Decided: March 30, 1986.


Haines, A.j.s.c.


This is a consumer fraud case requiring interpretation of the Consumer Fraud Act ("act"). The court awards damages to plaintiff notwithstanding complete, good-faith performance of the parties' agreement by defendant.

Plaintiff, John Huffmaster, owned a 1974 Dodge Charger valued at $400. Not surprisingly, the car was unsound, mechanically

and cosmetically. In August 1984 after the car broke down, it was towed to a nearby garage and then to the Robinson shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Huffmaster and Joseph Robinson, individually, agreed that the latter would make substantial repairs to the car. According to Huffmaster, the agreed price was $2,000, which plaintiff paid in advance. Robinson testified that the agreed price was $6,000.

Robinson operates a very sophisticated machine and repair shop in Philadelphia. He rebuilt Huffmaster's car almost completely. It appears in photographs as a new vehicle. When the work was finished, Robinson requested payment of the $4,000 contract balance he understood to be due, a demand which was refused by plaintiff who believed that he had paid in full. Robinson would not release the car without the further payment and advised Huffmaster that he would be liable for storage charges. These charges amounted to $65 plus $10 per day from November 13, 1984, totalling, as of the trial date $7,690. Huffmaster made no further payments and Robinson kept the car. Huffmaster now sues for damages, including those allowed by N.J.S.A. 56:8-19, the Consumer Fraud Act. Robinson counterclaims for $4,000 plus storage charges.

Joseph Robinson was an impressive witness with many years of experience in repairing and rebuilding motor vehicles. The repair agreement was made after extensive discussion at his shop, receiving an estimate from a subcontractor and advising plaintiff by telephone of the final $6,000 figure. Plaintiff did not testify convincingly to the contract discussions and could not, on the facts, have expected to have the work performed for $2,000.

Robinson's subcontractor, who performed body work and painting, estimated the cost of that work alone at $2,200, an amount that was paid by Robinson. Miscellaneous out-of-pocket expenses incurred by Robinson amounted to an additional $480.35. The major work consisted of installing a rebuilt engine and transmission, a new carburetor, an aluminum manifold,

a new distributor, a new exhaust, and a custom-built driveshaft, as well as overhauling the rear end. Originally, Robinson estimated the value of his work, without subcontracting charges, at $4,500 but finally quoted a "package price" of $6,000. A description of the repair work and the $6,000 price appears on an invoice prepared by Robinson. He testified that the $2,000 payment was an advance on account of the entire price, a much more likely arrangement than Huffmaster's claim that he paid the entire price in advance. These circumstances lead the court to an obvious conclusion: the contract price was $6,000, not $2,000.

That conclusion does not resolve the dispute. Robinson failed to obtain a written authorization for the work, signed by Huffmaster, and also failed to give him a written estimate of the price. These failures were not deliberate and I find specifically that Robinson acted in good faith at all times.

A. Applicable Law.

The contract was made in Pennsylvania. Under usual rules, Pennsylvania law would apply. The complaint refers to both Pennsylvania and New Jersey law. However, no claim that Pennsylvania law applied was made by Robinson until trial commenced. Evid.R. 9(2) provides that "[j]udicial notice may be taken, without request by a party of . . . the decisional, constitutional, and public statutory law and rules of court of every other state." However, sub-par. (3) further provides that:

Judicial notice shall be taken of each matter specified in paragraph (2) of this rule if a party requests it and (a) furnishes the judge sufficient information to enable him properly to comply with the request and (b) has given each adverse party notice thereof in the pleadings at least 20 days before the trial. The judge, however, may permit such notice to be given at any time in the interest of justice. In the absence of an adequate basis for taking judicial notice of the law of any jurisdiction other than this State and the United States, the judge shall apply the law of this State.

In the present case, there was adequate opportunity for defendants to request the application of Pennsylvania law prior

to trial. It is apparent, however, not only from the state of the pleadings, but also from the arguments made during trial, that plaintiff was prepared to deal with Pennsylvania law, if necessary. He has done so in his post-trial brief. Fairness, therefore, requires this court to take ...

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