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Whaling City dealership mum on pleas from Sen. Blumenthal and AG Tong to honor warranty

Not long ago, writing about a raw deal served up to a customer of New London's Whaling City Ford/Mazda dealership, I lamented the loss of Richard Blumenthal's hyper consumer advocacy as Connecticut's attorney general.

I couldn't help but recall Blumenthal's long term as attorney general and his tireless advocacy for consumers and attentiveness to the news media, returning every single phone call from reporters.

Alas, I suggested, Blumenthal, now our senior U.S. senator, has moved on to a national and world stage, and I would have to pin my hopes for an intervention on current Attorney General William Tong, that he might help William Petrone of New London claim his due from a tires-for-life promise made to him when he bought his 2013 Mazda 3 new from Whaling City.

Tong's office did indeed respond, and a spokesman for the attorney general said this week that a staff lawyer has spoken with the new dealership owner Filippo Marchionne and asked that he honor the tires promotion run by the previous owners "as a goodwill gesture."

What was unexpected, and frankly encouraging, was a response by Blumenthal, who apparently read the column about Petrone's problems and felt the old satisfying tug of consumer activism.

The senator personally phoned Petrone and got the story firsthand of how the longtime customer of Whaling City was refused a new set of tries despite meeting all the requirements of the tires-for-life promotion, having the car regularly serviced at the New London Mazda dealership all the years since he bought it.

The senator then wrote to Marchionne on July 28, on his United States Senate stationary, telling the car dealer that he had an "ethical obligation" to honor the tires warranty.

Petrone told me Tuesday he heard back from a lawyer in Tong's office, who reported to him that it is "actively" involved in pursuing the claim and speaking with a lawyer for the car dealership.

Marchionne, who responded quickly the first time I called to ask about Petrone's tires, telling me he is not responsible for honoring the promotion because he only bought the assets of the dealership, has gone silent. He didn't return my phone messages this week.

When he did talk to me, Marchionne said there are only a few customers remaining with coupons for the promotion.

Wouldn't you think, with a newspaper calling, a United States senator writing and the state attorney general intervening, that the car dealer might cough up a couple of sets of tires? The promotion even allows him to charge labor costs for installing the tires.

One keen reader sent me some links to data showing Whaling City collecting many hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic assistance. How much could the tires cost him at wholesale prices?

If it were me, I would spend the money he is paying a lawyer to fight Petrone's claim and hire a good publicist instead. But what do I know about running a car dealership?

I'm also not a lawyer, but I question how good the legal advice Marchionne is getting might be.

The defense for not ponying up for the tires promotion is that he didn't buy the business but rather the assets of the business, the brick and mortar.

But that wouldn't fly with any jury, given that big Whaling City signs on the corner of Broad and Colman streets are a reminder that business as usual goes on at a dealership that has been selling Fords under that name there for decades.

Indeed, the dealership name on Petrone's tires for life coupon is exactly the same as the name of the dealership on its website.

Does he really think he could convince a jury that he didn't buy the business, just the buildings?

Tong's office, in a response about Petrone's claim, pointedly framed the issue as one of goodwill.

But Blumenthal in his letter makes it plain that he thinks the dealership may indeed be legally responsible to honor the promotion.

"When you purchased My Whaling City Motors, you acquired all its assets including its name and goodwill. That substantial goodwill is closely associated with My Whaling City Motor's history of customer-based service and warranties," the senator wrote. "Those warranties should be honored as a responsibility of the company."

I hope Attorney General Tong feels the same way and pursues this in the "appropriate legal forum" that Sen. Blumenthal suggests in his letter as one inevitable solution to the standoff.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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