Fluid exchange: What happened when the cap was off?


"I'm a single woman," Jean DePiro says, "who knows jack-squat about cars." Through unhappy experience, however, she's learning more– and blames Speedee Oil Change & Tune-Up on Emmet Street for her education. After reading about Daniel Van Orman's experience with the local franchise ["Spilt grease," March 17], she emailed me her saga.

DePiro took her 2004 Jeep Liberty to Speedee this past December 3 for an oil change. On December 20, she claims, the car began to perform sluggishly. She took it to Battlefield Ford the next day, where, she says, they discovered that "the brake fluid was contaminated and that my master cylinder, calipers, hoses, etc. would need to be replaced" to the tune of $1,700. Add almost $300 for renting a car over the holidays, and it's easy to see why she was upset.

DePiro claims that because Speedee had performed the Jeep's last two oil changes and were "the only ones who had been under the [Jeep's] hood" for the past 10,000 miles, they must have been responsible for contaminating the brake fluid.

When she complained to Speedee owner Tom Fitzgerald, she says, he sent a hired investigator to Battlefield to get a sample of the brake fluid. The analysis was sent to Erie Insurance, Speedee's insurance carrier. DePiro asked that a copy be sent to her attorney, but she says Erie refused. Erie also refused her claim for damages. According to Steve Simzak, regional claims adjuster for Erie, DePiro's allegations "cannot be proven."

After studying the details of Speedee's 17-Point Oil Change on the company's website, I noticed that unlike other fluids (transmission, differential, coolant, power-steering, battery, and washer), brake fluid is only checked– not checked and filled. I called the Speedee franchise in Harrisonburg and asked an employee why that is. She explained that low brake fluid is a sign of worn brake pads– and that simply adding fluid could damage the sensors. In such cases, they explain the situation and lay out options for the customer.

Still, in order to check the level, the cap would have to be off. Could some other substance have been added, accidentally, to the brake fluid? DePiro believes it was. She intends to pursue the matter in Albemarle General District Court, and I'll report the outcome.



Speaking of Battlefield Ford, Downing Smith recently had a small skirmish at the dealership– which, I'm happy to report, ended without any casualties.

Smith took his 1988 Bronco there when the back window stopped going up and down. Battlefield "wanted $1,000-plus to fix it," he says, "which seemed a lot to spend on a vehicle I had only paid $2,500 for."

When he said he'd "pick up the vehicle and think about it," he was startled to learn that Battlefield would be charging him a $120 diagnostic fee. When he protested, he says, service advisor John Hancock replied that "everyone charges a diagnostic fee" and refused to drop the charge.

I spoke with Hancock, who said he'd ask service manager Al Dannemiller to call me. Instead, I got a call from Smith, who was delighted to report that Dannemiller had called him– to say that "there must have been a miscommunication because it had been a night dropoff" and that he'd be refunding Smith his $120.

When I called Hancock, he confirmed that the confusion had arisen because "the night dropoff form doesn't note that there will be a diagnostic fee if the service is declined." He repeated his claim that "everyone" charges diagnostic fees– but agreed that Battlefield would be wise to make that clear to customers, no matter what time of day they leave their car.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.