Snap happy: Want a refund? Take a picture

It's hard to be philosophical about having to pay for damage you didn't cause, even when, like Hannah Phelps, you're a philosopher in training. Perhaps I should say, "especially when you're a philosopher in training," because– like most UVA graduate students– Phelps doesn't have a lot of spare cash.

Phelps took her 1999 Toyota Corolla to the Sears Auto Center at Fashion Square on April 10 for a tire rotation and oil change. "I go to Sears," she explained in an email, "because that's where my dad always took our cars (and still takes them). I've never had anything but wonderful service." Until April 10, that is.

Things seemed fine until the weekend of April 17, when she noticed an "exhaust-type or gassy smell" coming in through the vents. On Monday she took the car to Brown Toyota for service, "worried that there might be an exhaust leak or something like that."

When service advisor Paula Walden called that afternoon, however, Phelps claims that "the first thing she said was, 'Who changed your oil last?'" Apparently the oil cap had been left off after the oil change, and "everything under the hood was soaked with oil."

That's what it states on Brown's bill for $251.63, which is what it cost to replace the spark plug wires and oil cap and clean the motor. "On top of that," Phelps adds, "I had to go two days without my car, and I live in Greene County."

Phelps says she called Sears after talking to Walden and left a message for the Auto Center manager, who was out until April 22. Instead of hearing from him that day, however, she got a call from Liliana Estrada, senior claims adjuster at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Schaumburg, Illinois, which handles claims against Sears. Phelps explained her dilemma, then sent Estrada a letter in which she summarized the situation and enclosed her credit card bill and service write-up from Brown.

"I heard nothing for over a month," she claims, and then got a letter "requesting a photograph of the damage." Phelps called Estrada back to say that she hadn't thought to intervene before Brown's began fixing her car so that she could take pictures. On June 28– two months after filing her claim– she got Liberty Mutual's final word, in the form of a letter from Estrada.

Estrada minced no words. "I have now completed my investigation," she wrote. "After reviewing all information presented, I am denying your claim." After giving her number in case Phelps had "further questions," she closed with, "Thank you for your time."

Phelps did indeed have further questions, and claims that although she called Estrada the same day she got the letter, Estrada never called back. She tried Sears again, and says that Auto Center assistant manager Chris Hochman said he'd "see what he could do" and promised to talk to the manager "by that afternoon for sure." But, again, the phone never rang, and on June 30, she contacted me.

I left two messages for Estrada, which resulted in a call from Adrianne Kaufmann, senior external relations specialist for Liberty Mutual. Kaufmann said she wasn't able to discuss Phelps's claim, but stated that "the issue is being resolved" by Sears.

Sears spokesperson William Masterson delivered the happy news: The Sears Auto Center at Fashion Square will be reimbursing Phelps her $251.63. "We apologize for any inconvenience," Masterson said. "We want the customer to be happy."

"The lesson here," he added, "is that it's important to get pictures." I asked John Hay, director of service operations at Brown's, whether their service department has a camera. It doesn't, and he doubts that many repair shops do. So here's our lesson for the week: If your mechanic calls to report damage that you might want an insurance company to cover, be sure you get pictures before any repairs are made.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville, 22905.