No smiley face
This week's consumer contretemps started when the aggrieved parties failed to define the terms of their relationship and relied, instead, on assumption. That's a common feature of many relationships, whether the parties involved share an apartment, an office, or a marriage.
There's one relationship, however, where explicit conditions— whether in the form of a price tag, a lease, or an insurance policy— are not only expected, but downright essential: the business transaction.
Unfortunately, no such conditions were made explicit when Barb Lynch arrived at Clifton Harris' dental practice on April 1, expecting to pay $237 to have her teeth cleaned and bleached. She was relying on a coupon she'd heard about from a co-worker, but never actually seen, and Harris’ office neglected to spell out the terms.
Lynch assumed that her teeth would be cleaned, a set of molds made, and that she'd return a few days later to retrieve the molds as well as a bleaching solution, which she would apply at home.
The dentist, Lisa Tatum, assumed Lynch had seen the coupon and realized that it offered a new-patient exam, X-rays, and the cleaning/bleaching special. In other words, she assumed Lynch understood that with the words "new patient" appearing three times on the coupon that the special was intended only for those who planned to become regular patients.
From the beginning, in other words, the two sides had widely divergent expectations.
Tatum entered the room after the hygienist had cleaned Lynch's teeth, and the question of X-rays arose. Lynch said she'd had X-rays within the year and didn't want to get more. Had she brought them? Tatum asked. No, Lynch replied, wondering to herself why the question even came up; after all, she was only there for the cleaning and bleaching special.
Tatum stated that without seeing the X-rays she could only do a partial examination, which she then performed; when she was finished, the molds were made. Lynch paid her $237, made an appointment to return several days later to get the molds and bleaching solution, and left.
She was surprised— and dismayed— when the office manager called the next day to say that Lynch wasn't a candidate for bleaching, due to some erosion on her teeth and areas where her gums had receded.
Lynch asked for a full refund, but was told that $100 would be withheld for the cleaning. She protested that she shouldn't be charged for the cleaning if she'd only had it as part of the bleaching special, but the office manager wouldn't relent.
Lynch claims that she subsequently left messages for the office manager and Dr. Harris, but neither call was returned; Harris denies this. Finally, she contacted me.
I talked with Tatum on April 12 and asked why she hadn't told Lynch, after examining her teeth and noting the problems, that she wouldn't be a candidate for bleaching. Tatum replied that since she didn't have the X-rays, she had to go ahead and make the molds in order to check Lynch's bite.
Okay, I'm no dentist, but why does it matter what her bite looked like, if it was obvious that her teeth were too sensitive for the bleach?
I talked to Harris on April 15, who said the office manager had described Lynch as being satisfied with her appointment. In the next breath, he said he'd told the office manager to give Lynch a full refund. Although I pointed out the discrepancy, he went on, during a lengthy conversation, to repeat both claims.
In the end, Harris refunded Lynch the full $237. I was left to wonder, as I often am, how a reporter ended up in the middle of what should have been a straightforward business transaction.
There were no explicit terms, that's why; no printed explanation of the special for Lynch to read through and sign, and no warning that she might not qualify for bleaching. In particular, there was no warning that the cleaning would cost $100 even if the bleaching never happened.
So here's my consumer tip for this week: If you're entering into a business transaction and don't know exactly what you're paying for, watch out: You may end up paying for frustration and lost time. The same, of course, goes for the seller.
Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street N.W., 22902.