Customer uses spare key to take vehicle without paying .

We repaired a car and parked it outside waiting for the owner to pay before he collected the car. We never let cars go unless we receive payment and if a customer wants to inspect our work we always send an employee with the keys so that the customer cannot simply drive a car away until our invoice is paid.

Unfortunately the customer, seen on CCTV, returned with a duplicate key and drove the car away without paying our invoice. We called him in the morning to say the repair had been completed; he came in the afternoon and took the vehicle.

What can we do?
You could sue the customer in law and probably the first action would be for breach of contract, there are other actions you could include. If the value of the outstanding invoice is less than £10,000 it is likely to be a small claim, RML assists members with the completion of court documents and civil litigation so become a member of RML’s legal subscription service so we can help.

Prior to commencing civil litigation you should contact the customer, by text and inform him that you will report the theft of his vehicle to the Police if he does not contact you with 1 hour, or pay the outstanding invoice. Remind the customer that if he is convicted of theft he could be sent to prison for a maximum of 7 years, so this is likely to encourage him to pay. RML will assist members by drafting a suitably worded letter/email/fax/text to the customer which you can send and which hopefully will encourage your customer to pay.

So is a customer taking back their own vehicle theft?

Well yes, the situation you face is very similar to that faced by a man called Arthur Edwin Brown who ran a garage in Carlyle Road, Manor Park, East London in the seventies. The facts of this case are recorded in the case R v Turner (No. 2)[1971] 1 W.L.R. 901.

It is a very interesting motor industry case which every motor industry professional should be aware of, and the facts briefly are as follows;

Mr Brown was asked by Mr Turner to repair the engine in his Sceptre car and left him with the car and keys. Mr Brown replaced the piston rings and left the vehicle parked in Carlyle Road some 10 to 20 yards from the garage because he was short of space.  

According to Mr. Brown, Mr Turner called at the garage and asked if the car was ready. On being told that it was, Mr Turner said that he would return on the next day, and would pay Mr. Brown for the repairs and pick up the car.

A few hours later, however, Mr. Brown found that the Sceptre car had gone; whoever had taken it had a key because the key that Mr. Brown had was still on the keyboard. He reported the matter to the police.

Mr Brown believed that Mr Turner had taken the car but did not have his full name or address, so night after night Mr. Brown went round the neighbouring streets to see if he could find the car. Sure enough he found it parked in a street near Mr Turner’s flat. Having found the car Mr. Brown, using the key he still had, took the car back to his garage, removed the engine and then towed it back engineless to the place from which he had taken it from.

Meanwhile, the police made enquiries with Mr Turner who told lie after lie to them. He said that Mr. Brown had never had his Sceptre car at all, that the car had never been to the garage, and that the only work that Mr. Brown had done was to a Zephyr car on an earlier occasion. However, a time came when he abandoned those denials and agreed that he had taken the car to the garage, and that he had taken it away and had never paid for it. In saying that, however, he emphasised that he had taken it away with the consent of Mr. Brown.

It was on these facts that Mr Turner was found guilty of the theft of his own car. He was fined £200 with three months to pay or 12 months' imprisonment in default, and was ordered to pay £150 towards the prosecution costs.

It is therefore clearly an established point in English law that the ‘owner’ of a vehicle can commit theft if the vehicle is removed from your premises without your permission and without paying for the work you have undertaken.

You should immediately notify your customer that he has stolen the vehicle and you intend to report the matter to the Police if he fails to contact you immediately and in any event within 1 hour.

If the customer fails to return even though you have explained it is theft then report the matter to the Police and be prepared to argue that the situation you face is not just a ‘Civil Matter’ but is indeed theft and quote R (the Crown) v (against) Turner (No. 2)[1971] 1 W.L.R. 901. If you still don’t get anywhere ask to speak with the inspector on duty and explain that you have the theft captured on CCTV, obviously making sure the CCTV will not overwrite the footage before you have a copy.

The Police contacting the customer is likely to persuade him to pay your invoice, if he hasn’t paid it previously.

If you face a similar situation or required advice on a different matter contact RML’s helpline if you are a member, or join our subscription service you’ll be surprised how little professional legal advice can cost.