Call me old-fashioned, or even corny, but I still prefer a firm handshake to a contract.
The penalty of shame is a more powerful bond than a trip to the courtroom, in my opinion, especially in a world where contracts always seem to have a trap door anyway. Contracts depersonalize human exchanges; they let people off the hook on the menschkite level. "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to talk to the lawyers." Is there any sentence more emasculating than that one?
I was thinking about that yesterday while filling out a Lemon Law form on the Better Business Bureau website. Name. Middle initial. State. Shoe and collar size . . .
I shouldn't make fun of the BBB, which I'm grateful to. My beef is with the Ford Motor Co. for making me go through the rigmarole of the arduous Lemon Law process, rather than simply standing behind its product.
The fact that my newly leased 2014 Ford Focus is a lemon is not at issue. The dealer knows it; the dealership mechanic knows it; the people I've called at Ford seem to know it, but still it's "talk to the lawyers," in the form of the Lemon Law routine which evidently will put me in courtroom at some point in the distant future.
I got the car in mid-January. From day one it felt lurchy. But then, early one morning, after having the car for no more than 10 days, the thing stalled while I was merging onto a highway. That was disconcerting, so I brought it to the dealer. They checked it and told me nothing was wrong with the car, but I swear, they didn't look me quite in the eye. (More on that later.) The next day, the same thing happened, but this time with my 7-year-old daughter in the backseat.
If you've ever had a car stall out while merging onto a highway, right at the point of maximum acceleration, you will not soon forget it. It involves frantically groping for the hazard light button before the car behind slams into you at 65 mph. That was in the first week of February, which was the last time I saw the car. About a month later, I got an email saying it was fixed; it was just being gassed up. But on the way to the gas station, the Focus died again, right in the middle of traffic. The car has around 600 miles on it.
But here's the scary part involving not being looked in the eye. In the two-plus months I've been waiting for the car, I've had lots of time to spend on Google, and lo and behold I've run across hundreds of citations of the same thing happening on the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Ford Focus and Fiesta. It's a transmission problem, evidently, which WTAE Action News in Pittsburgh ran a great investigative piece on. Ford claimed to have fixed the problem two years ago, but clearly it didn't. And judging from the number of complaints online, it has to know that.
Ford won't recall the model, though, reportedly because the National Transportation Safety Board hasn't forced it to. This while General Motors is undergoing a legal and PR disaster for not recalling cars with faulty ignition switches that are being blamed for the deaths of at least 13 customers. I can't attest to the severity of the problems others have had with their Fords, but I can place my hand on the Bible and swear that my faulty 2014 Ford Focus easily could have caused the death of my daughter, me and other drivers on the highway. If this, indeed, is an endemic problem, the bond between people demands that Ford address it, regardless of the legalese between Ford and the NTSB.
At risk of making this column too lengthy, I am including a reply sent to my sister from a local Connecticut restaurant manager after her shop failed to catch a "no sesame seed" request in a delivery order. It puts legalese to shame.
"Dear Ann, I wish I could put into words how sorry I am about all of this. This is a very scary and serious matter that we will not take lightly.
"I reopened your check and rang a salad through the online ordering module exactly the way you did and I think I found part of the problem. When an order is rung through our in-house system as an allergy, the cook gets a ticket with a big red ALLERGY modifier at the bottom. When it is rung through the snapfinger app, that modifier becomes a small black 'allergy' that is printed above the order. We still should have seen it. I have just brought this up with our kitchen manager and he will be bringing it to the attention of everyone who handles to go orders. I have also emailed our IT with this so we can get this fixed immediately.
"I'm going into this level of detail not to make excuses, but to let you know that we take such matters very seriously as we understand the level of trust that people with food allergies have in us as food service professionals. We should have seen it, and kept both sesame seeds and the house dressing off of your salad. Please let me know how we can make this up to you."
I bet Henry Ford, himself, would have written something like that.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.