AMELIA ISLAND, FL – Dealers need to keep up with legal matters, but sometimes it is hard to stay alert, let alone awake, while listening to sonorous lawyers at seminars or reading legal bulletins that are dry as law books.

The Florida Automobile Dealers Assn. believes it has come up with a way to keep its members informed on legal affairs affecting them, without making them nod off.

The association stages lively mock trials that are intended to be demonstrative, instructive and sometimes entertaining, with occasional quips such as, “Do you swear to tell most of the truth most of the time?”

“We’ve found the mock trials are an effective way to get important legal points across to dealers without boring them,” says Ted Smith, president of the Florida Automobile Dealers Assn., who during such productions dons judicial robes and wields a gavel while impersonating a judge.

Association members and dealership attorneys play various roles at the pretend proceedings that are based on actual court hearings and case law that affect dealers, often adversely.

The Florida mock trials got their start last year when the association put them on for local dealer groups during something of a traveling show.

This year, two trials were staged at the association’s annual convention here. A hotel meeting room was converted into a courtroom setting, complete with a judge’s bench (a thick wooden table on a platform), a witness stand and roped-off seating for spectators.

One reenactment of an actual case involved a dealership that was sued by a customer who claimed deceptive and unfair trade practices after a sub-prime lender, unable to verify his income, returned the financing contract. That prompted the dealership to try to repossess the car – but not before the customer wrecked it.

The mock trial offered take-away points on that and other finance and insurance issues. Among them:

  • Undisclosed cost of credit may render the contract usurious.
  • Negative equity cannot be buried in a purchase price.
  • Unclear language may render buyers’ orders unenforceable.
  • Not to give an advertised price to all customers is considered an unfair trade practice.

The convention’s second mock trial was based on General Motors Corp.’s real effort to add a fifth GMC dealership in the Orlando market, over existing local dealers’ protests.

The question before an administrative judge was whether the current dealers’ comparative performance levels provided “adequate” representation for GMC in the territory. However no franchise law provision defines adequate representation.

Largely because of that ambiguity, GM prevailed in the actual court case, following testimony of a consultant who said his market analysis indicated another dealership would serve the area well and stimulate GMC sales.

John Forehand, a real-life attorney who represents dealers in such disputes, played the mock trial’s expert witness for the auto maker, testifying in favor of a fifth Orlando dealership point. During a break, he said: “I just want to say I don’t believe any of what I just said on the witness stand.”

He says some states have special commissions that hear dealership cases. Members of such panels tend to be familiar with the intricacies of the auto industry.

“But in Florida, we have administrative judges, like the one Ted Smith played, who aren’t as knowledgeable,” Forehand says.

This year the association wants to lobby in Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital, for franchise-law changes that would better protect dealers.

Smith says going up against auto makers in such situations can be tough, because “they have a lot of money” and hire powerful lobbyists.

But dealers carry clout of their own as local business people, says Mario Murgado, chairman of the Florida dealer association. “We also have a lot of strength when we go to Tallahassee,” he says. “We sometimes forget that.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com