Vantage Point: Knowing When to Stop

A 71Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

There have been two big automobile recalls in the last several weeks, accompanied by fines in the billions, due not just to defective features but because of the manufacturers’ failures to notify the public of them. For Toyota and Lexus, the problem (attributed to 12 deaths) has been in two parts: stock floor mats that get stuck under the accelerator and plastic material in the accelerator pedal that could cause it to stick in a partially depressed position. For GM the problem has been a little more complex: an ignition part that was re-engineered but not given a new part number so that it has been difficult to tell which cars had the faulty part. The result of ignitions slipping out of the "on" position and cutting power to vehicles has been 13 deaths.

For both manufacturers, the design glitches had been known for years. And they are not alone. My husband likes the small BMW wagon, big enough to carry a dog and groceries at the same time. About five years ago, his car began to suddenly die out, losing power in some very inopportune places like ramps onto highways. He took it in to the dealer multiple times; they charged him vast sums of money; the problem persisted. The last time he was told that the cause was the higher sulfur content in US gas compared to European gas, resulting in engine corrosion so that compression was lost. Oh, and the warranty against this problem had just expired. My husband sold his car for parts and I will never buy from BMW, now revealed as a writer of stealth warranties.

Why do companies do these kinds of things? It’s all a ratings game. The fewer recall notices put out and the fewer vehicles publicly identified as defective, then the better the rating of manufacturer. But the outcry when such tactics and disregard of dangers become public is probably worse than when a firm takes responsibility for its errors.

Cars and surveying: do these two topics intersect? Are stealth warranties like stealth surveys, with corner markers mysteriously moved in the night? Is ignoring a problem until it becomes life threatening related to avoiding owning up to survey miscalculations or insufficient research? While the consequences are not always as devastating, certainly that’s possible, depending upon who is relying on surveying work for bigger projects.

Two cases about surveyors admitting errors (or not) come to mind immediately, both widely cited. The first, La Bruno v. Lawrence (166 A.2d 822; 1960), has been discussed here before, but is a perfect example of how attitude and pride get in the way of doing the right thing. To recap for those who don’t remember, Lawrence had surveyed two adjoining lots in the past, and Smith, one of the lot owners, now wished to erect a fence on the common line. Lawrence re-staked that common line for him, placing a marker in the front, one in the rear, and one in the middle of the flower bed owned by neighbor La Bruno, who had relied on the first survey to install his now encroaching garden, patio, and walkway. Even when La Bruno visited Lawrence in his office to say that either one survey or the other had to be wrong, Lawrence’s classic response was (quoted directly), ""I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it." His reward for bad attitude was punitive damages for trespass (a negligent tortious act), since "[h]e demonstrated a willful and wanton disregard of the property rights of the plaintiffs, that was reasonably calculated to aggravate his original mistaken trespass by the consequent trespasses of the Smiths and [Smith’s fence contractor]."

The second case, Enright v. Lubow (493 A.2d 1288; 1985), involves a mistaken easement location on a survey. The Enrights hired Bailey to survey property that was to going to be sold to the Lubows, and the resulting plan located a gas and electric right-of-way 30 feet from the house. On notification by the electric company that it would be cutting down trees "near their home", the Enrights suspected a problem–but didn’t tell the Lubows. Their title company ordered a second survey from Bailey, which now showed the easement within six feet of the house. A third survey, by another surveyor, confirmed the second location. Result: sale falls through, suit filed, damages assessed.

In 2013 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked Chrysler to voluntarily recall certain Jeeps with an increased risk of fire if rear-ended. Chrysler’s first response was to refuse, claiming the vehicles met or exceeded all safety requirements when built and were among the safest vehicles in their respective classes. But within weeks, a "voluntary campaign" (not a "recall") was underway, with a massive public relations component to it. How will you handle your mistakes?

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 71Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE