High fees, long waits: customers accuse local body shop of wrongdoing

Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 5:32 PM EDT
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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - It’s an unfortunate reality for car owners: sometimes, another driver hits you, and you have to take your car in to get it fixed. Dealing with the other driver’s insurance company can be a hassle. Once you get your car into a body shop, though, you hope you’re one step closer to getting back to normal.

But several people in our area tell us, that’s when their troubles began.

They’re different people, with different cars, damaged at different times. But they all told us the same story: they took their car to Hernandez Collision Center, where it sat for months unfixed, racking-up charges in what they now call, “car jail.”

“I felt like it was in jail,” said former Hernandez Collision Center customer Heather Hurst. “I mean, there are so many cars out there on that parking lot. They are in jail, like they can’t get out.”

Hurst took her Toyota 4Runner to Hernandez’s location off Ogeechee Road in Chatham County two years ago after someone ran into her car. It suffered minor damage, and the other driver was at-fault. Still, she said she wanted to get it fixed. The problem was, every shop told her it would be months before they could fit her in. All, except one: Hernandez Collision Center. They said they could take her car that day. Hopeful, she dropped it off.

Hurst calls it the worst mistake of her life.

“I had no idea a business could take your vehicle and never give it back,” she said.

Documents show Hurst’s car sat in Hernandez’s lot for six weeks, unrepaired and racking-up fees. When she decided she wanted to take it somewhere else, they sent her a bill for nearly $6,000. The shop listed storage and estimate fees, including a $1,250 administrative fee for things like “answering the phone” and “greeting the customer.”

Hurst felt the charges were outrageous, and planned to dispute them.

“I had thought, I’ll bring a credit card, and I’ll dispute it. But no, she said, “we don’t take credit cards. We take only cashier checks,” she explained.

Hurst didn’t realize it, but Hernandez’s consent form - which she signed - states in small, fine print that the shop does not accept credit cards or personal checks. Customers tell us it’s also an arbitration agreement, which means if you sign it, it’s much more difficult to sue them.

Hurst ended up paying Hernandez a $5,000 cashier’s check, just to get her unrepaired car back. Progressive insurance, the at-fault driver’s insurance company, called Hernandez’s charges, “not usual or customary.”

But it didn’t end there. After Hurst talked to us, Hernandez sued her. He also sued one of our other sources, who then asked not to be named in our story due to the fact she now has litigation hanging over her head. Neither lawsuit accuses either of the women of making any false statements - to us or anyone else - about how Hernandez treated them. Instead, they claim the women violated their arbitration agreement by seeking “extra-judicial remedies.”

I found Hernandez is no stranger to lawsuits. In fact, the shop has been involved in at least 123 other civil cases in Chatham County alone. In most of those cases, Hernandez sued customers for abandoning their cars.

You can search for cases in Chatham County for yourself here.

Jill Morris said she and her husband feared they’d never get his brand-new Chevrolet Impala back after taking it to Hernandez for a cracked windshield last year.

“It was just a windshield! That’s it.”

Two months and more than $4,000, Morris said they finally drove it home.

“We just pretty much demanded our car. I think they were tired of us,” she added.

Teniqua Grimsley said her Ford Focus also sat for more than two months at Hernandez’s Hinesville location. It had minor bumper damage after someone hit her. She said they charged nearly $4,000 for the repair.

“Imagine getting into a car wreck, you’re already stressed out, and the people who are supposed to help you are making it ten times worse,” she said.

Grimsley said she tried to sue the shop, but a judge threw the case out citing that arbitration agreement. We took this information to the Better Business Bureau (BBB). BBB Southeast Atlantic office President Tom Stephens said, he’s never heard of such high fees for an estimate.

“It seems to be designed to extract the most possible revenue out of every customer that comes through the front door,” Stephens said.

Stephens added Hernandez’s unwillingness to accept credit card payments is a red flag for customers.

“Because that means they’ve been beset with chargebacks over the years because of their pricing or their practices or whatever,” Stephens said. “And so, they refuse to take them.”

All three women encourage others to be cautious, and avoid shops like Hernandez Collision Center.

“Because they’re going to get your money,” Morris said. “And if they don’t get your money, they’re going to keep your car.”

The WTOC Investigates team contacted Hernandez Collision Center as it was putting this story together. Their attorney, Benjamin O’Neal, called us back. We sent him a list of specific questions and paperwork backing-up multiple complaints. But Hernandez Collision Center did not answer our questions, and instead said they could not comment on pending litigation.

If you feel a shop has treated you unfairly, you do have options. You can take legal action, leave a review, and rate them on the BBB’s web site. You can also file a complaint with Georgia’s Consumer Protection Division. Overseen by the Attorney General’s office, they investigate unfair and deceptive practices.