What recourse do I have?

Hello Car Talk community. I need some advice and my cousin sent me here. (Apologies in advance for how long this is).

I have a 2003 Subaru Legacy Sedan. In September of 2013 I took it to a Subaru specific garage for it’s 30,000 mile (no, that’s not a typo. My ten year old car had 33,906 miles on it. If it isn’t incredibly obvious, I almost never drive). inspection, as recommended by the manual. Here is the work the inspection called for, and which they did: “perform complete safety inspection of brakes, exhaust, suspension, lighting and cooling systems, check and adjust parking brake an accessory belts as needed, replace air filter, spark plugs, fuel filter if applicable, oil, oil filter and drain plug gasket, thermostat gasket and radiator cap, drain and fill cooling system, automatic transmission fluid differential fluids, brake fluid in the reservoir and washer fluid”. Good. Fine. That all set me back $354, plus $95 for a battery package. Here’s where it gets expensive, and where my issues start. They suggested replacing my head gasket. This is apparently not suspicious, as evidently there had been some issues with head gaskets at the 10 year mark in this make and model of car. I don’t know if the work NEEDED to be done, but I didn’t know better and said sure. THAT work set me back $2110. But I picked up the car and it seemed to be running fine, if a bit sluggish at times (though my car has never had much giddy-up) until February of this year.
In early February, after driving for maybe 15 minutes (about 3 miles), the car’s check engine light came on and it started sounding like it was going to die any time I was at a stop light; rattling and so forth, vibrations, etc… In addition to smoke/steam (it was white, not black or gray) coming from the front left part of my hood. Luckily I was two blocks from my destination and I made it. Later that evening I was able to successfully drive my car home with no issue. I took it to my local garage where they diagnosed (inaccurately, as it turned out) a spark plug issue. The invoice says ‘parts–spark plugs 4-4 NGK 6953. parts-ignition wire set 1.’ The check engine light was off and I went on my merry little way. 2 days later the check engine light came back on. I will admit at this point that I became a wee big negligent, and since my car was successfully getting me around on my very short little drives, I ignored the light. It then turned off of its own accord maybe 2 weeks later.
Then I very stupidly (I think I forgot that my car was struggling) drove my car 16 miles to the airport (and I had not, until this point, pushed the car above probably 40 MPH). I managed to hit every single green light so I did not have to slow up until I approached the airport garage and realized that the same vibrating, death rattle, smoking hood thing was happening. Except worse. My car was NOT in good shape. When I finally stopped the car to collect my ticket into the garage, the car died. I turned it back on. Died again. Managed to get it to start a second time and zoomed into the parking garage. A few days later I had it towed (it wouldn’t start, but that was probably because I accidentally left my dome light on and drained the battery) to the same garage that did the spark plug work. They ran a bunch of tests but weren’t entirely sure what the problem was. They took it across the street to another mechanic who diagnosed the following: “car has misfire on cylinder 3 and failed a cooling pressure test with no external signs of coolant leak. We then did an engine block test to test for hydro-carbon gas in the cooling system and the car did fail. Thus, there is likely a leak through the head gasket or a potential crack in the cylinder head. REC: R+R cylinder heads, replace gasket, and pressure test cylinder heads.” It did end up being a leak in the head gasket, which they showed to me when I picked up the car. The mechanic who did the work said that the screws on one side ‘weren’t torqued down enough.’ So I ended up paying over $3000 to fix a head gasket that was leaking because of what would appear to be shoddy or incompetent work by the first garage. That initial work is no longer under warranty, since it has been more that 12 months. However, it says 12 months or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first. It has been 2,158 miles. They made the following notes regarding the warranty: “please note a check engine light (which is emissions related) may come on or back on at any time. This is no way reflects any work performed by -blank- . If the check engine light has anything to do with work performed by -blank-, we will waive the diagnostic fee, but not any parts.” Second part of the warranty, “all of the above work has a 12 month/12,000 mile warranty, whichever comes first, provided that the oil is changed every 3 months or 3,000 miles, whichever comes first (it has been), with provided receipts and that the vehicle is never allowed to overheat (nope), or a check engine light is ignored (hmm. I immediately addressed the first one, but did ignore the second.) The vehicle must be brought to -blank- at the owner’s expense for any warranty consideration. There is no exception to this policy.”
I’m sorry that this is so incredibly long. I just thought that it might be helpful to have as many details as possible. My question is this: do I have a legitimate claim to restitution from the first garage? Or has the expired warranty rendered that moot? I’m obviously no mechanic, but it would seem to me that a leaking head gasket less than 2 years and 3,000 miles out from a replaced head gasket (and the mechanics assertion that the screws weren’t properly tightened) gives me a pretty solid base from which to argue. Do you wise souls think that I should pursue this? $2,000 is a lot of money. I’m not sure how much I could get back if I did go after them, or how to go about it. I’ve considered confronting them in person and asking them to make it right (though I’m not entirely sure what that would mean? Full refund? Refund for the labor? For the parts?) and then threatening (though I’m loathe to do this) to go to every review site on the web and outline my story, in addition to writing to the better business bureau, etc. If that doesn’t work, is it worth my time to go to small claims court? Does anyone here have experience with such a thing? I could really use some advice on this. Please help! And thank you!

I think the problem you may have here is that you took the car to someone else instead of the people who did the head gasket work originally. Note that the warranty states the car must be returned to them for any warranty consideration; with no exceptions.

As to the head bolts being loose that could be caused by someone not tightening them properly or even overtightening them and which then led to pulled threads in the engine block.
Gasket crush or even a warped cylinder head could be behind a problem like that. It’s also something that would be impossible to determine at this point.

It does sound like a shop error caused this but you’re also likely up the creek without a paddle on this one.
Forget filing with the BBB. They’re a toothless organization that has zero power to enforce anything no matter how much at fault the shop may be.
The BBB is essentially a bulletin board for complaints; nothing more.

What @ok445 said. You should have taken it back to the first shop. Now the first shop can state, correctly, that they didn’t get a chance to solve the problem, and that the second shop was responsible. Any chance you can give up the car, since you drive so little? Zipcar in your area? Public transport/taxis?

because you drive the car so little, it would be tough to force them to agree to any compensation at this point.

As @OK4450 noted, you did not have it taken to them at the first sign of a problem.

Had you had it towed to that shop, you may have been able to get them to give you a break on redoing the work. Besides at $450 for all that work mentioned, it’s a steal.

As far as that second shop goes, I doubt that they spent much time doing any real diagnosis.
It sounds like it was over heating and they replaced the spark plugs??? They must have just rolled the dice on that one.

The $3000 price for the head gasket job does not sound too out of line, as I think the engine has to come out for this.

Quote; after driving for maybe 15 minutes (about 3 miles)

Were you pushing it up a hill :wink:


Well darn. Not what I wanted to hear but live and learn, I guess. The first garage is waaaaay north and would have cost me a boodle to tow; silly that it didn’t occur to me to do so, though. I guess I didn’t think it mattered, but that’s why you read the damn paperwork. And yosemite, you’re not wrong about the second shop. They’re my guys and they’re really, really wonderful and nice but they’re a glorified jiffy lube, really, and this was above their heads, unfortunately. Better mechanics might have detected the head gasket problem before the car blew up, but the repair would still have me out three grand, so… And as for the 3 mile 15 minute drive, I got caught in nightmare traffic and also got lost. So maybe more like 5 miles. Still ridiculous, I know. And texases, ‘any chance you can give up the car?’. Well, not anymore, really. They had me on the phone in a ‘whaddya want to do’ sort of situation and I guess I panicked. My car is old and a little dinged up, and I wasn’t sure what I could get for it if I sold it or what sort of trade-in value it had (and I wasn’t overwhelmingly thrilled with the idea of saddling myself with car payments), so I went for the fix. Which, of course, I instantly regretted the minute I picked up the car. It’s my first car so I’m attached for sentimental reasons, but man, she’s looking a little worse for the wear. In addition to the $3000 I just plunked down I need to get the gusseting replaced and possibly a little body work since the trunk occasionally leaks since I was rear-ended almost 10 years ago. This is giving you guys fits, isn’t it? I know, I know…it’s mildly embarrassing, but what did I know?!? As for zipcar or public transportation, one becomes very used to having a car, doesn’t one? I’m a sucker for convenience, and I just like having it out there in the driveway any time I need it.
While I have you here, second question: the mechanic who just replaced the head gasket looked at the car for me because I asked him if he thought it was worth it to put in the work, and he said that the rest of the car is in good shape. Which is really why I said ok to the repairs. I figure if I can get a few more good years out of it then it’s worth it. Though perhaps I’ll end up being wrong. In your opinion, should I bother with the gusseting repairs and trunk fix and just let those things go until I’m done with the car? Should I put in the money and try to sell it? Given how little it’s been driven it seems like maybe I could get a fair sum for it. But I’m not sure. I’ll probably just keep it until it gives out, but man do I find myself jonesing for a shiny new car. Speaking of which, do you guys like Subarus? When I do get a new car what do you recommend? I think I’d like an Outback or something like it. My sister told me to get a Prius, but I’m not sure. I like the idea of something with a bit more room in it. Thoughts? You guys are great, by the way. Thank you.

Quote: I need to get the gusseting replaced and possibly a little body work since the trunk occasionally leaks

I thought that you were talking bad about my wife there.

$2000 is equal to about 8-10 months of car payments so I’d go ahead and have the repairs done.
It sounds like this car has not been a hard keeper…expense wise, so just chalk this up to your one big auto repair on it. For a 2003 that’s not too bad.

When you do start shopping around, I do like the outbacks. They are pretty reliable and normally not tough to work on.
As far as engine swaps, or the removal of the engine for the head gasket job, they are a breeze.

My buddy and I did one in about 7 hours for a swap. Of course that was with the replacement ready to be put in.


I honestly feel the first shop botched the job and it’s very sad that you ended up in this position.
If the heads gasket job on a Subaru is properly done it’s usually good for the life of the car unless the engine severely overheats for some reason.

Considering the car only has 30k miles on it I tend to agree that it would be worth putting money into. I might also suggest a timing belt kit at the same time. These engines are interference fit, meaning engine damage will occur if a timing belt snaps. A T-belt will give little or no warning before it breaks.

If you have a used engine installed I would highly recommend a new timing belt kit before the motor goes in.

I have no problem recommending a new Subaru if it came down to that. As an ex-Subaru dealer mechanic I have a love/hate attitude about them.
The love part is that I think they’re pretty decent cars in spite of a few hiccups here and there.
The hate part is more policy oriented and has nothing to do with the cars or customers. It involves warranty pay which absolutely sucks and some corporate SOA policies which suck even worse.

For future reference, head gaskets are not routine maintenance items. In other words, you don’t swap them out just because it’s 10 years old. You only swap them out when they go bad. If your car was not displaying any head gasket-related symptoms, then the first shop took you for a ride by convincing you to let them change it in the first place.

Also for future reference, note that maintenance intervals are all listed as xxx miles OR xxx months, whichever comes first. Given the low mileage you put on it, you will be using the months value. So if the oil change interval is 5k miles or 5 months, you would do the oil change in 5 months, even if that is only 1500 miles.

you noted “30k checkup”, which indicates to me that you were NOT performing maintenance as required, as the 30k (or 30 months) maintenance should have been done in 2006, not 2013.

And the timing belt is also probably way overdue at 144 months, equivalent to 144k miles. (I think this year had a timing belt)


+1 to Bill Russell’s comments.

First–yes–that engine does have a timing belt.
IIRC, Legacy and Outback 4 cylinder engines moved to timing chains only about 2 years ago. (That is just one of the reasons why I opted for a six-cylinder Outback in both 2001 and 2011)

As was noted, if the timing belt was never changed, it is several years overdue for replacement.

So, I am beginning to think that the car in question is–at least to some extent–the victim of lax maintenance. As but one example, the coolant should have been changed about 7 years ago. Since Subaru coolant contains a “conditioner” for the head gaskets–as well as rust inhibitors-if the coolant wasn’t changed according to elapsed time, that omission could account for both overheating and head gasket failure.

Additionally, a potential safety hazard is lurking if the OP hasn’t had the brake hydraulic fluid flushed–which should have taken place at least 3 times so far, on the basis of elapsed time

My suggestions for the OP are twofold:

Open the booklet titled Subaru Maintenance Schedule. In addition to noting the either/or “whichever comes first” provisos on maintenance, also be sure to read the definition of Severe Service. It is very likely that the way this car is operated qualifies for that description, which means that much more frequent servicing is necessary.
Accept the fact that the mechanic who replaced the head gaskets the first time is not responsible at this point, even if he did a sub-standard job. That mechanic’s warranty terms were not met, so the OP is out of luck on that score.

“the mechanic who just replaced the head gasket looked at the car for me because I asked him if he thought it was worth it to put in the work, and he said that the rest of the car is in good shape”. - OP

And now the engine is repaired. I’d keep it. I can’t comment on the gusseting or the leak without actually seeing it, but if you have a friend who can help perhaps you can create a seal for the trunk and makeshift repair for the gusset. Based on your description of your needs, a new car would be a waste of money IMHO.

Shadow touched on something I wondered about. Did the car need a headgasket in the first place. Too late to worry about that now, but for others I did want to make the point. When you’re confronted with the proposition of expensive work when the car wasn’t having a problem to begin with, it’s always prudent to get a second opinion.

Unfortunately, Subaru’s definition of severe service is loose enough that almost all of us qualify, which seems to be a way for Subaru to default on any warrantee service.

If you fit any of these categories it is severe: City driving. Drive where roads are salted. Drive in the mountains. Drive in the rain. Drive in the winter.

In other words, you do not qualify only if you live in southern CA.

Man oh man have I been poring over a lot of paperwork. And you all make very good points. While I certainly don’t feel as though I’ve been negligent in my maintenance, it is now obvious that I have been. The months vs. mileage is the real issue here, as I was absolutely basing the maintenance schedule on mileage. So BillRussell is right that the “30,000” mile checkup should have been done at 30 months, not…120. Eep! I always thought that I stayed on top of oil changes, but it occurs to me that I followed the notes left by the mechanic indicating to come back at xxx mileage, and not in three months. Looking over the schedule of inspection and maintenance services makes me realize just how much I wasn’t doing over the years. And since I truly didn’t have a single issue with this vehicle until the service in 2013, it was easy to forget about maintenance because the car continued to run like a top.
In regards to the timing belt, the initial garage–I’ll call them Bob’s–listed the following work in the invoice from 2013: T-Belt Adj 2.2-2.5. Idler T/Belt. Idler Pulley. T Belt Idler. Alt/Ps Belt 2/99-5/01. I don’t know if that covers your concerns, as it doesn’t seem that it was actually replaced. As for the coolant, this was included in the description of the work: “drain and fill cooling system”, so that seems to be ok, yes? Also, if this latest mechanic looked over the vehicle and said that overall it looks good, would he not have inspected things like the timing belt? I suppose I shouldn’t assume. I have to go back there anyway so I’ll ask.
And VDCdriver, you are absolutely right about my driving qualifying as ‘severe driving conditions’. I didn’t realize that repeated short distance driving qualifies as ‘severe’, but I’ve learned quite a lot in the last few days. I suppose the good news here is that I’m gonna be the most responsible car owner that ever lived for my next car.

I changed oil today in my car thats not used much. I change once a year. This year it had five miles on it between oil changes. Last year it got seven miles. So year, time not mileage.

As has been said, when you have a problem with a repair, the first thing that has to be done is to give the original shop an opportunity to make it good. If they don’t then you are free to seek other remedies and have it fixed. Being not close to the original shop and over the time period are a little extenuating circumstances. The only thing you could do is talk to the original shop and see if they will do anything. You could always pursue the small claim court route to try and recover the $2000, but probably wouldn’t win given those two issues. Depending on the first shops attitude, might be worth the $35 or whatever to make your point but don’t even plan on going back again.

I’d take the car back to the shop that did the first head gasket job and ask them if they will make you whole again. If they won’t – for whatever reason – I don’t think you have much going for you to force them to help. Consider it a life lesson learned.

In the future if a shop recommends some big & expensive job be done on your car, and there are no corresponding symptoms you’ve ever noticed, suggest you ask here for ideas first.

My assumption, right or wrong, is that based on what was shown on the invoice about belt idlers, tensioners, etc the timing belt and water pump were also replaced at that time and which is the proper thing to do.
It would be sheer insanity to replace various timing belt idlers and tensioners while ignoring the belt itself and the water pump. I have to think that the parts listing on the repair order is incomplete or hazy.

There’s really no easy way to inspect most timing belts and even with belts that are easily accessible any inspection may not mean much. A belt may look perfectly fine and still be in serious need of replacement.
In some isolated cases a timing belt may be aged enough or in bad enough shape that a visual may work but those are in the minority.