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Young v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

May 23, 2019

DUANE YOUNG, an individual, and all those similarly situated, Appellant,
v.
TOYOTA MOTOR SALES, U.S.A., a California corporation, Respondent.

          Siddoway, J.

         Duane Young's negligent misrepresentation and Consumer Protection Act[1] (CPA) claims against Toyota Motor Sales were dismissed following a bench trial. He appeals dismissal of the CPA claim, challenging the trial court's legal conclusions. Because the trial court's factual findings support its conclusion that Mr. Young failed to carry his burden of proof on at least two elements of his claim, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In December 2013, several months after purchasing a 2014 model year Toyota Tacoma truck from a dealer in Burlington, Washington, Duane Young received a letter from Toyota. The letter stated it had recently come to Toyota's attention that the Monroney label[2] on the vehicle he purchased might have indicated that an outside temperature gauge was included in the vehicle's rearview mirror. As the letter disclosed, that feature was not available on any 2014 model Tacoma. The letter apologized for the mistake and any confusion it might have caused. It offered to compensate Mr. Young with a cash reimbursement of $100.

         In January 2014, Mr. Young communicated with a customer service representative for Toyota named Jeffrey Moore, expressing his dissatisfaction with the reimbursement offer. By the end of January, Mr. Moore had offered to install a rearview mirror with an outside temperature gauge as an aftermarket part, but because it would not be factory-installed, the three-year 36, 000 mile warranty on many of the truck's other parts would not apply. Still dissatisfied, Mr. Young contacted an attorney, after which Toyota offered to pay him $500 to resolve his complaints. He declined the offer.

         Arbitration proceedings with Toyota led to an award of a buyback by Toyota for over $27, 000. Mr. Young rejected the buyback because he thought he could sell the truck for more. He was right; he eventually sold the truck for $30, 500.

         In May 2015, Mr. Young filed the lawsuit below. He sought to pursue it as a class action and asserted claims of common law fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and for violation of the CPA. The trial court denied class certification.

         Toyota moved for summary judgment on all of Mr. Young's claims; he responded with a cross motion for summary judgment on his CPA claim. In ruling on the motions, the trial court dismissed the fraud claim but declined to grant either party's motions on the negligent misrepresentation and CPA claims, which proceeded to a bench trial.

         Trial

         At the bench trial, Mr. Young testified that the outdoor temperature gauge was an important feature to him and he was misled into believing it would be included in the limited package by a Monroney label and by the "Build-a-Tacoma" feature on Toyota's website. The "Build-a-Tacoma" feature enables a consumer to select the features of the truck he or she is interested in purchasing.

         In the defense case, Toyota called as a witness its distribution pricing administrator, who testified that in early September 2013, an audit of the Monroney label for the 2014 model Tacoma with the limited package revealed that it erroneously identified the truck's rearview mirror as including an outside temperature gauge.[3] The 2013model Tacoma had included such a temperature gauge, but it had been removed from the limited package for the 2014 model. Toyota presented evidence that in pricing the 2014 limited package the cost of that feature was removed, so purchasers of the limited package never paid for it. It also presented evidence that the cost of the feature was $10.

         The pricing administrator testified that the date on which Toyota first started wholesaling 2014 model Tacomas to dealers was September 4, 2013, so catching the error in the early September audit enabled it to substitute correct labels on most of the 2014limited package models before they were shipped to dealers. In mid-October 2013, however, Toyota employees realized there might be vehicles in the field that had been shipped with incorrect Monroney labels. The pricing administrator testified that on October 22, 2013, she notified field offices of the possibility of incorrect labels, and that corrected labels would be available to print at their field offices the next day. The e-mail directed the field office to send the corrected Monroney labels to dealers in their region.

         The general manager for Toyota's Customer Experience Center testified that she learned in late October 2013 that incorrect information about the temperature gauge had been entered into the "Build-a-Tacoma" program on Toyota's website. She testified that the "Build-a-Tacoma" website information was corrected in early November 2013.

         Toyota presented evidence that a total of 59 2014 model Tacomas with the limited package were sold in the state of Washington, and only three were sold before Toyota realized there was a mistake with the Monroney label. Of the remaining 56 trucks, 41 were sold after January 30, 2014 (roughly three months after the mistake had been corrected) and 31 were sold after May 1, 2014 (roughly six months after the mistake had been corrected).

         Toyota's witnesses testified that letters like the one Mr. Young received in December 2013 were sent to 147 individuals that it identified as the only consumers who possibly purchased the limited package after seeing misleading information. There was no evidence presented that anyone other than Mr. Young claimed to have been misled.

         At the conclusion of the bench trial, the court took the matter under advisement, issuing a lengthy and detailed memorandum decision three months later. It found "at least seven areas" where it "question[ed] Mr. Young's credibility." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 411. It concluded that Mr. Young had not proved either of his two remaining claims and directed Toyota's counsel to prepare formal findings and conclusions.

         The findings and conclusions thereafter presented and entered incorporated all of the factual findings articulated in the court's memorandum decision. They concluded that Mr. Young failed to carry his burden of proving multiple elements of both of his claims. Mr. Young appeals.

         ANALYSIS

         Following a bench trial, appellate review is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the trial court's findings of fact and, if so, whether the findings support the conclusions of law. State v. Stevenson, 128 Wn.App. 179, 193, 114 P.3d 699 (2005). "Substantial evidence" is evidence sufficient to persuade a fair-minded person of the truth of the asserted premise. Id. We defer to the trial court's determinations of the weight and credibility of the evidence. Mueller v. Wells, 185 Wn.2d 1, 9, 367 P.3d 580 (2016).

         Unchallenged findings are verities on appeal, see id., and Mr. Young does not dispute the trial court's extensive findings. "Thus, the only question is if the unchallenged facts support the trial court's conclusions of law." Id. Mr. Young's appeal challenges only the trial court's dismissal of his CPA claim.[4]

         In a private cause of action, the CPA requires a plaintiff to prove five elements: "(1) an unfair or deceptive act or practice, (2) occurring in trade or commerce, (3) affecting the public interest, (4) injury to a person's business or property, and (5) causation." Panag v. Farmers Ins. Co. of Wash., 166 Wn.2d 27, 37, 204 P.3d 885 (2009); see also Hangman Ridge Training Stables, Inc. v. Safeco Title Ins. Co., 105 Wn.2d 778, 780, 719 P.2d 531 (1986). "Failure to satisfy even one of the elements is fatal to a CPA claim." Sorrel v. Eagle Healthcenter, Inc., 110 Wn.App. 290, 298, 38 P.3d 1024 (2002). The trial court concluded that Mr. Young's proof of the CPA claim fell short of his burden in five respects. It is sufficient on appeal for us to address whether he proved the first and fifth elements of the claim.

         Element One: An unfair or ...


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