The subject of second-hand cars is often very complex especially where injuries have subsequently been received in a road traffic accident as a consequence of faults on the vehicle. We have seen various examples of vehicles sold to buyers fully expecting a good deal only to find they were not roadworthy. So, where do you stand when purchasing a second-hand car if you are injured as a consequence of faults on the vehicle?
Rights as a consumer
The first thing to say is that when buying a second-hand vehicle from a private seller your rights will be reduced compared to those accompanying a purchase from a verified car dealer. While some people automatically assume you have no rights when acquiring a vehicle from a private seller, this is not the case. The first thing we will take a look at is the Sale of Goods Act.
Sale of Goods Act
When acquiring a brand-new or second-hand vehicle from a registered dealer, all consumers have rights under the Sale of Goods Act. The vehicle must be fit for purpose, of satisfactory quality and the sales description must mirror the actual vehicle. Quite simply, if it has been sold as having one previous owner and this turns out to be three previous owners, the vehicle has been mis-sold and the buyer would likely have a case against the seller.
The situation is a little different when it comes to a private sale because the Sale of Goods Act does not fully apply. That said there is still a legal obligation for the seller to describe the vehicle accurately. Some of the more common scams include:-
- Changing the mileage on the vehicle
- Misrepresenting the age of the vehicle
- Lying about the number of previous owners
- Cut and shuts (two damaged vehicles used to create one vehicle)
If you find a vehicle was bought under a different premise to the actual condition and background then quite simply you would have a case against the seller. If you are in a road traffic accident and were injured as a consequence of a mis-sold vehicle then you may well have a claim against the seller for negligence. On the flipside of the coin, when buying a vehicle from a private seller there are genuine risks and there are questions you need to ask.
Is the car described as roadworthy?
Any vehicle, sold by a registered dealership or private seller and described as roadworthy must be roadworthy on the day of purchase. There will of course be vehicles which have been involved in accidents, failed MOT’s and are not roadworthy. These must be described appropriately and the seller must ensure that the buyer is aware of the issues. If the vehicle is sold as “spares only” and described as not roadworthy then the seller has carried out their legal duty. If the buyer was to ignore the warnings in the sales description, and was involved in an accident, then it is unlikely they would have any legal recourse to the seller.
This then brings us onto the “bought as seen” caveat which many people seem to think automatically absolves private sellers of any legal obligation. If you describe a vehicle as “bought as seen” and do not warn the buyer that it is not roadworthy, you are breaking the law. If the buyer was involved in an accident, and they or others were injured as a consequence, then it may be possible to claim for personal injury compensation against the seller. There is a common misconception that “bought as seen” absolves private sellers of any issues. There is also the “caveat emptor” which translates as buyer beware which is again a fallacy. When buying a second-hand car, unless described otherwise, the individual should be able to safely assume it is roadworthy.
Does an MOT certificate prove the car is safe to drive?
MOT certificates are very interesting when it comes to legal technicalities, obligations and negligence. Many private sellers will waive an MOT certificate in your face to “demonstrate” its roadworthiness. On the surface, yes, the vehicle may well have a valid MOT certificate but what if the seller is aware of subsequent safety issues with the vehicle?
This goes back to the argument before, an MOT certificate may last for one year but it only shows that the vehicle was roadworthy at the time of the test. It is not a legal document to confirm the roadworthiness of a vehicle days, weeks or months down the line. Therefore, private sellers who assume that an MOT certificate for a vehicle they are selling will “cover them in the event of accidents and injuries” will need to think again. If it can be proven that the vehicle wasn’t roadworthy on the day of sale, and no warning was given to the buyer, then there may well be a case for personal injury compensation in the event of an accident/injury.
Test driving a vehicle
The vast majority of people acquiring a vehicle would look to have at least one test drive before signing the paperwork and handing over their money. This brings us onto a very interesting subject, what would happen if during a test drive there was an accident, and injuries, caused by the potential buyer?
It is the obligation of the owner at the time to ensure that those invited to drive their vehicle are legally able to do so. Therefore they will need to have:-
- A valid driving licence
- Valid insurance
In the eyes of the law it is very possible that the owner of the vehicle (this may be a company or individual) could be liable for any personal injury compensation even if they were not driving. The fact that they “invited” an individual not authorised/qualified to drive the vehicle is negligent. As a consequence, there is every chance that the owner of the vehicle could be held partly/wholly responsible for any compensation in the event of third-party injuries. This may sound unfair but everything backtracks to the owner and the fact they gave permission for an unqualified driver to drive a vehicle. Ignorance is not an excuse.
While we have focused on the seller as a potential negligent party in the event of an accident/injuries caused by an unsafe vehicle, there are also legal obligations on behalf of the buyer. Let us assume that the buyer is made aware of a brake pipe which has partly corroded. The seller has described the vehicle in a manner which confirms it is roadworthy at the time but certain elements will need replacing/examining in due course. So, what would happen if you bought the vehicle, ignored the warnings and the vehicle failed to stop at a crossroads, causing an accident and injuries?
If you hadn’t been warned of potential issues with the vehicle, and the incident occurred prior to the next MOT, then you may legally be able to divert blame back to the original seller. Yes, there is general wear and tear on vehicles but at the time of the sale the seller was aware of issues, for example the brake pipes, which they failed to communicate to the buyer. However, it is a whole different scenario if you were made aware of the issues and failed to act.
Driving with defective brakes is illegal, maybe not as easy to spot as a bald tyre, but still illegal. In the aftermath of an accident involving a recently acquired vehicle, whether injuries occur or not, it is likely that the authorities would look at the sale documentation. If it was proven that the buyer was aware of the issues and took no action, this is negligence and they could be liable for significant personal injury compensation. It is not difficult to see how acquiring a second-hand vehicle can become very complicated with regards to your consumer rights and the subject of negligence/liability in the event of an accident and injuries.
Checking the car before purchase
When acquiring a car through a private seller, as opposed to a dealership, there can be potential cost savings. The private seller does not have the same overheads as the business and therefore does not require the same profit margin. It may be worthwhile using these potential “savings” to have the vehicle checked out by your local garage or a qualified party to confirm that all is good. This gives you peace of mind that the car is roadworthy and in a worst-case scenario you have spent a few pounds to potentially save hundreds if not thousands on a mis-sold vehicle.
If you were to carry out a check of the vehicle prior to a purchase, and various repairs were required, then you are buying that vehicle in the knowledge those repairs must be done as soon as possible. The legal liability of the seller is reduced, as you would be fully aware of any issues, but if you choose not to repair them and they are a contributing factor to an accident, and injuries, then it could be argued you have been negligent.
When you look at all of the various issues associated with buying a car from a private seller, a lot of it comes down to common sense. In a perfect world, if you’re buying a car from a private seller you should always arrange an inspection prior to completing the purchase. This will identify any issues the seller may have been aware of but failed to tell you or even unearth issues nobody was aware of.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this article is the fact that so-called sale conditions such as “bought as seen” and “caveat emptor” don’t relieve the seller of their legal obligations – in this instance to provide a roadworthy vehicle and an accurate description. However, this subject and the matter of negligence/liability is something of a minefield – you should protect yourself!