What are your legal rights and remedies concerning vehicle repairs carried out by a garage in France?
Under Article 1231 of the Code civil, garages have an obligation to return the vehicle to their owner with the repair perfectly carried out.
The obligation arises under the general law of contract, which states:
'le débiteur est condamné, s'il y a lieu, au paiement de dommages et intérêts soit à raison de l'inexécution de l'obligation, soit à raison du retard dans l'exécution, s'il ne justifie pas que l'exécution a été empêchée par la force majeure.'
Accordingly, if you put your vehicle into a garage for repair, should a subsequent problem arise, provided it is related to the original defect, the garage is liable.
A garage can refuse to accept a vehicle for repair if they consider that they do not possess the technical knowledge or other means to satisfactorily carry out the repair.
But statute law is only written in the most general terms, and it has been left to the courts to interpret the scope of rights and obligations of the consumer and the garages.
In that jurisprudence, one of the important principles that has become established is that, in the absence of a result, the fault of the garage is presumed. The consumer does not have to prove negligence by the garage. If the problem persists after the initial repair, the garage must take back the vehicle for repair at their own expense or reimburse their customer for the unnecessary work they carried out.
It is a solution that is relatively simple to implement when the repair has been poorly carried out and the vehicle quickly breaks down again for the same reason, but it becomes more complicated when a new breakdown occurs after some time has passed since the repair, or when the relationship between original repair and new problem are not direct.
In recent years, consumer groups in France have expressed concern that the interpretation of the law by judges has become more restrictive, with a more nuanced view of being adopted.
Thus, in a landmark case in 2016, the judges ruled that the automatic liability of the garage extended only to damages caused by the breach of its obligation of result, but when the cause of the new breakdown cannot be determined, and 10 months have elapsed between the repair and the new breakdown, the liability of the garage is not retained.
Similarly, where it can be demonstrated that an owner has failed to properly maintain their vehicle, then the responsibility of a garage for subsequent problems can be removed or reduced. Although a garage had fitted the wrong oil filter, the report from the expert witness showed that the owner had failed to properly maintain the vehicle, which was the more likely to be the cause of continuing problems.
Nevertheless, other cases have had a more satisfactory outcome for the complainant, with the courts ruling in several cases that an owner is entitled to claim against a garage, not merely for defective work, but on the grounds that repairs carried out were insufficient.
Thus, although the cause of a problem with a vehicle could not be established five months after a repair was carried out, in a case in 2019 a vehicle owner was successful in obtaining damages as the problem had continued. The courts ruled that although the repairs carried out were not defective, the garage had not carried out sufficient research into the problem.
Garages also have an obligation to provide professional advice, and where it is not provided, they can be held liable. In a recent case, a vehicle owner accepted an estimate from a garage for repairs amounting to €1,416 and a a further estimate for additional works of €608. The garage subsequently stated that works amounting to nearly €5,000 were necessary, a figure that was higher than the value of the vehicle. The owner refused to accept the estimate and left the vehicle with the garage to sell it. The owner sued for damages, with the court ruling that the garage had failed in its duty of advice to the owner, who was granted €2,000 in damages.
Although vehicle owners might normally expect to return a newly defective vehicle to the same garage, this is not always necessary in order to prove the liability of the original garage. In a case in considered by the Cour de Cassation last year, a vehicle owner entrusted their vehicle to a garage due to a message on their dashboard indicating they had a problem with the pollution control system. The garage changed two injectors at a cost of €2,094. Two days later the same message appeared. The owner took the car to a different garage who replaced a sensor. The owner was able to subsequently sue the original garage for damages. The court gave the decision merely on the basis of the invoice from the second garage.
Although in this case no expert witness was used, it is not usual for courts to appoint a technical expert, whose report is often determinant in the outcome of the case.
Where problems arise with a garage repair, and the garage is not prepared to accept responsibility, or the final bill is substantially higher than anticipated, the solution is not an easy one.
Inevitably, entering into a disputes procedure with a garage is going to mean that the garage will no longer want your custom, even if you are prepared to use them again. In rural areas of France, in particular, that may mean you will need to travel some distance to have your vehicle repaired in the future.
If the garage is part of a franchise dealership, you should consider taking the matter up with their head office, or with the manufacturer if the problem is a serious one.
As always, prevention is better than cure, so choosing the right garage and obtaining an estimate for the work are the most important steps you should take.
Here again, however, care is needed, for if the garage is only willing to provide an ordre de réparation, this is only an estimate, not a fixed price. Only if the garage provides a devis de réparation (quotation) are they bound by the estimate. The garage can also charge to supply an estimate.
In the event that a part needs to be changed, when this is not provided for in the quotation, the garage must obtain your prior written agreement. The additional time required to fit the part cannot be passed on to the owner. You should always ask the garage supplies you with the parts that were replaced.
If you dispute the final cost, the garage is entitled to retain the vehicle if you do not pay. However, if you have concerns about the repair, then you should ensure you follow up payment with a recorded delivery letter setting out your grievence, or to send that letter prior to making the payment and await the reaction.
If no common ground can be found then it you will need to consider legal action. If you have taken out a vehicle insurance policy with a 'garantie de protection juridique you need to contact your insurer and invoke use of the legal assistance that is provided for in the policy. You can read more about such policies in our article Legal Protection Insurance in France.
If you do not have legal assistance insurance, then you may need to consider obtaining support from a consumer body or legal support association, who may be able and willing to assist with bringing a legal action, without the need to engage an avocat. For legal actions under €10,000 it is not obligatory to use an avocat.
It is also possible to complain to consumer protection officials in the prefecture - the Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (DGCCRF), who may wish to investigate the business, although they are unable become involved in a dispute.