An online video complaining about car repair has sparked a legal battle between a Fenton, Missouri man and a car dealership that wants to shut him up.
Dwayne Cooney’s video complaint about Jim Butler Chevrolet became a minor hit on YouTube when he posted it in February. Thousands tuned in to see a dashboard camera video of mechanics working on his car and hear Cooney suggest that he’d been overcharged.
Now he’s facing a defamation suit from the Fenton dealership. It’s turned into a tangle involving free speech as the dealership fights to have the video taken down and Cooney banned from saying things that the dealer says are false.
A St. Louis County judge on Feb. 24 ordered the video off the Internet at the dealership’s request. Circuit Judge Colleen Dolan reversed herself eight days later, and it’s now back online.
Cooney kept his dashboard camera running when he left his 2008 Malibu for repairs at the car dealer. He then posted an edited, narrated, 17-minute video on YouTube showing mechanics fixing the car, talking about it and test-driving it.
In the video, Cooney complains that the dealership billed 4.5 hours of labor for a job that, by the camera’s clock, took 1½ hours. His bill was $553.
Brad Sowers, principal at Jim Butler Chevrolet, denies overcharging. He says the video doesn’t show most of the time his mechanics spent on the car.
The video picked up an Internet following. In its first few days, it gathered 4,500 views. That sparked consternation at Jim Butler Chevrolet.
“It took on a life of its own. It started going crazy,” Sowers said.
Worried about his firm’s reputation, Sowers filed a defamation suit, demanding that Cooney delete the video.
Jim Butler Chevrolet, which employs 105 people, has an A-plus rating from the Better Business Bureau, which recorded 11 complaints over three years.
The video has picked up an additional 8,700 views since the judge allowed it back on the Internet on March 4.
Cooney, 42, says he’s a camera expert certified in surveillance equipment. He says he handles “hundreds” of cameras at his work in “security and investigations” for an employer he declined to name.
He also posts cameras at his Fenton home and in his cars. “We have them in all our vehicles, and they record 24 hours a day for the protection of our family and our vehicles,” he said.
He posts some of the videos on his “Gateway Dash Cam” channel on YouTube. The site includes a picture of Cooney wearing tape over his mouth. The tape carries the Chevy symbol and the word “Butler.”
Cooney said he didn’t intend to nab the mechanics; the dash cameras are simply on all the time.
He took his car to Jim Butler on a Friday night, Jan. 31, leaving the keys in the night drop. He complained about a key fob and air pressure monitor that hadn’t worked since a battery was changed. The air bag warning light had been on for months.
According to the dealership, mechanics couldn’t get to the car on Saturday, so the dealership offered Cooney a free rental car, which he accepted.
The video takes place on Tuesday. In it, two mechanics puzzle over the problems and gradually work them through. They discover that the air bag wasn’t working because someone placed a fuse in the wrong spot.
“Who did that?” asks one.
“I don’t know. It sure had me,” says the other.
In court filings, the dealership claims that a mechanic spent 3.2 hours on the car on Monday, the day before the video, and did more work Tuesday morning before the video.
“The task was complex because no diagnostic codes were revealed by the GM tech equipment,” the dealership’s filing said.
Cooney’s dash cam works on a time loop, with older recordings automatically erased. Cooney wouldn’t say if he has a video for Monday.
“I never disputed that they worked on it on any previous day,” Cooney said. “The question is, if you did, what did you do?” he said, noting that the problems were fixed during the video.
The dealership says it gave Cooney a good deal, charging only for 4.5 hours of labor, when the job took more than five, and cutting his bill to $553 from $674.
Sowers said he tried to contact Cooney when he learned of the video, even offering to allow Cooney to videotape their meeting. Cooney said he wanted to take his complaint to General Motors first.
“He backed us into a corner,” Sowers said. “I can’t let that linger out on the system.”
The dealership sued and asked for a restraining order, telling Cooney to take down the video and stop making the “false statements” on it.
“In 34 years I’ve never taken a customer to court. Ever,” Sowers said. He’s posted his own YouTube video, titled “Official Gateway Dash Cam,” promoting his service department.
Cooney was served with court papers on Feb. 21 and summoned to a hearing the next Monday. He showed up without a lawyer, and the judge issued a temporary order telling him to take down the video.
Cooney’s homeowners insurance company hired lawyer Martin Buckley to represent him, and he began a tangle over the First Amendment’s protection of speech.
The law generally places a heavy burden on anyone asking the courts to restrain speech. Cooney’s lawyer argued that such injunctions are rare and issued only after a jury finds the statements false after a trial.
The dealership’s lawyer argued that Cooney was trying to hurt the business. Cooney and others “believed to be in concert” with Cooney were spreading their stories on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
The judge sided with Cooney, removing the injunction.
The dealership, meanwhile, is suing for damages of more than $25,000.
Cooney said the dealer offered to drop the suit if he deleted the video and paid $8,000 of the dealer’s legal expenses.
Cooney, who is pictured above, isn’t happy about that.
“We offered on several occasions to settle this for a simple apology and a partial refund. Jim Butler insists on suing a former loyal customer,” Cooney said.