Column: Hyundai disavows SoCal dealer that abandoned people's cars amid pandemic
We've all got weird experiences to share about the coronavirus. Olivia Vera may have one of the weirdest.
She dropped off her car at a Culver City dealer in March because of engine trouble. The dealer subsequently had the car towed away as businesses throughout the region closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The towing company then slapped Vera with thousands of dollars in fees for taking in the abandoned vehicle.
As if things couldn't get any worse, the 26-year-old Westwood resident faced the very real prospect of her car being sold off this week if she didn't show up at the storage yard with a bag of cash (and cash only, no checks or credit cards).
"This is absolutely not what I thought would happen when I dropped off my car at the dealer," Vera told me. "Who would have expected something like this?"
I've spoken with many people since the coronavirus ended consumer life as we know it, and I've heard all manner of grievance, from refunds unpaid to companies that couldn't be reached because they'd furloughed almost everyone.
But what happened to Vera — and about a dozen other people who brought their cars for repairs to Nissani Brothers Hyundai — represents a new low in service (or lack thereof).
"It's shocking," Vera said. "How could something like this happen?"
In this case, all roads apparently lead to Hooman Nissani, co-owner of a string of Southern California car dealerships, including local showrooms for Nissan, Chrysler and Chevrolet.
Nissani was ordered last year to pay $2.4 million in back pay and penalties to settle what state officials called California's largest wage-theft case. A carwash he owned allegedly cheated 64 workers out of minimum wages and overtime over three years.
Neither Nissani nor any of his businesses could be reached for comment. But in trying phone numbers associated with Nissani, I reached a man who refused to give his name but identified himself as a manager of the Hyundai dealership.
He was able to answer questions about Vera's 2019 Hyundai Kona, such as when she dropped it off and when it was towed away, so he clearly had access to the company's records.
This person told me Nissani Brothers Hyundai closed in March because of the coronavirus but would reopen soon.
He said a handful of cars — "fewer than five" — were towed from the lot after the dealership repeatedly tried to contact the owners about the impending coronavirus closure and the need for them to take possession of their vehicles.
Vera and other customers who are complaining of mistreatment have it wrong, the man said. "There are two sides to every story," he insisted.
True. But that doesn't make both sides correct.
Jim Trainor, a Hyundai spokesman, told me the closure of the Nissani Brothers dealership had less to do with the coronavirus than it did a deteriorating business relationship.
He said the shutdown followed weeks of bad blood between the dealer — with Hooman Nissani running the business — and the corporate headquarters.
"This dealership voluntarily ended its relationship with Hyundai on April 6, no longer represents Hyundai as one of its dealers and is closed," Trainor said.
"Prior to the closing of the dealership, this dealer moved vehicles that had been dropped off for service to an off-site facility in order to vacate the property, without informing Hyundai nor the customers who had vehicles at the dealership for service and repair," he said.
Hyundai is aware of at least 11 cars being towed, Trainor said.
"We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused to the impacted customers and we pledge to make this right," he said.
The dealership is currently fenced off. Cranes and construction equipment are visible from the street.
Jared Scott-Ransom, 26, is another Nissani Brothers Hyundai customer whose 2018 Elantra was towed from the lot after he dropped it off for transmission work.
He told me no one notified him about the car being removed. In fact, Scott-Ransom said, he lives near the Culver City dealership and stopped by in mid-March to see how the work was coming.
"They said they were still waiting for parts and didn't know when the work would be finished," he recalled. "They said they'd let me know."
Now, Scott-Ransom said, he's reporting the matter to state and federal authorities, and is considering a lawsuit against Nissani Brothers.
For her part, Vera conveyed a tangled tale of not being able to receive a straight answer from the dealer, the Hyundai head office or the Long Beach towing company, E3 Collision, which she said was billing her $150 a day in storage charges.
Vera said E3 informed her last week that a lien had been placed on her vehicle and it would be sold off this week if she didn't pony up about $6,000 in cash.
No one at the towing company returned my calls for comment.
Hyundai stepped up its game after I started making inquiries last week.
"As soon as Hyundai learned of this situation and of these storage fees being charged to our customers, we quickly took steps to get all Hyundai cars out of E3’s facility and sent to a nearby Hyundai dealership where the service work would be made and our customers would be well taken care of," Trainor said.
"All customers who made any form of payment to E3 during this situation have been, or will be, fully reimbursed."
Vera's car is now at South Bay Hyundai in Torrance.
Levit Perez, South Bay's service manager, told me Monday that records from Nissani Brothers indicate Vera's engine was replaced, "but I don't see any evidence of that."
He also said the other Nissani cars that have arrived at his dealership from E3 "were torn apart by someone and never put back together."
Like I said up top, weird — and deeply disturbing.
"We care about our customers," the man who said he was a manager of the Nissani Brothers dealership told me. "There's two sides to this story."
Hyundai says the only story here is that of a franchisee who couldn't be trusted to treat customers respectfully and who used the pandemic as cover for shoddy practices.
"It wasn't the coronavirus," Trainor said. "It was something else."
I encourage any consumer caught up in this mess involving Nissani Brothers Hyundai to contact the state attorney general's office, which watches out for unfair business practices.
And maybe think about installing a GPS tracker in your car before dropping it off for repairs at any Nissani Brothers dealership. This can be done for under $30.
Because you never know.