Mo. lawmakers propose looser standards for damaged vehicles

Friday, May 4, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri lawmakers are considering loosening the standards for the kinds of damage that must be listed on a vehicle's title -- a move praised as pro-consumer by some and denounced as anti-consumer by others.

The House and Senate each endorsed measures Thursday that could lead to fewer salvage titles being issued for vehicles.

Supporters say that could allow people to get a greater resale value for older cars that have hail damage or have been in fender-benders. But opponents fear buyers might be unaware they are getting damaged vehicles.

Under current law, vehicles must be considered salvaged if the cost of repairing them equals at least 75 percent of their value and they are no more than seven years old.

Legislation, which passed 113-38 in the House, would raise the damage threshold to 80 percent of the value, exempt hail damage and require salvage titles only on vehicles six years old or newer.

The Senate on Thursday adopted an amendment to a separate bill that would go even further, requiring salvage titles only for vehicles up to three years old with damage equaling 80 percent of their value. The Senate version also exempts hail damage from triggering salvage titles.

Vehicles with salvage titles often sell for less than those with clean titles.

But a salvage title can be misleading if it's applied to a vehicle that suffered nothing more than tiny dents from hail, said Brent Butler, the government affairs director for the Missouri Insurance Coalition.

"It has a connotation that it's been really wrecked, as opposed to cosmetic damage," Butler said. By exempting hail damage, "we're trying to help our consumers."

Sponsoring Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, a former car salesman, said the current 75 percent threshold also is causing problems with some older vehicles. If an insurance company originally considers a car 50 percent damaged, but a repair shop discovers additional damage that pushes the cost past the 75 percent value, the insurance company could end up paying for the original repairs and then paying the policy holder again because the vehicle must be considered totaled.

In the House, Republican supporters said the current definitions for a salvaged vehicle are too tight and have made it harder for people -- especially the poor and elderly -- to buy cheap cars.

But some House Democrats said the proposed changes would hurt consumers by obscuring when a vehicle has been damaged and substantially repaired.

Rep. John Burnett said the legislation is a "terrible, horrible, no good bill" that reverses years of consumer protections.

"Poor people and old people do not want wrecked cars, and they do not want to be sold cars that have had substantial repairs to them any more than people with money," Burnett, D-Kansas City.

Sen. Rita Heard Days, D-St. Louis, also expressed some skepticism when questioning Griesheimer about the bill.

"I just want to make sure that we're not trying to dupe the public," Days said.

The salvage provisions are included in larger House and Senate transportation bills.

The bill pending in the Senate also would repeal the state's mandatory vehicle inspections and allow police to pull over motorists solely for not wearing seat belts, among other things.

The version passed by the House also would allow bigger trucks on some state roads, allow consumers to claim an income tax exemption worth the sales tax paid for cars manufactured in Missouri and require someone to sell six vehicles a year to qualify as a dealer.

House and Senate members still must agree on a final version of the legislation.

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