Here's Why You Shouldn't Gamble With Your Oil Change

To many car lovers, the idea of paying a stranger to change your oil is just wrong. Some people don't have the time or the inclination to pull off the self-serve oil change and they often go to those quickie oil change places. This can lead to horrific results.

Because it involves a car, people call my office when things go wrong with a quickie oil change. Having handled quite a few of these cases, I can tell you true events which have befallen my clients at these venues.

One client took the vehicle he had bought just a month earlier for its first oil change. After my client paid for the oil change, the car made it one (1) block before the dash lit up like a slot machine on crack and the engine seized. Suspecting a causal relationship between the purported oil change ten minutes earlier and the engine failure, the client walked back to the shop to see what insight they could provide. "I forgot to put oil back in!" an employee blurted out, as if he had just solved a hilarious murder mystery.

The shop offered to tear his engine down and repair it – they had mechanics on staff – but my client wisely had the vehicle towed back to the selling dealer and got a quote on a short block replacement. Litigation ensued and led to a happy ending - at least happier than letting Mr. "I forgot to put oil back in!" try his hand at a rebuild on a month-old car.

My first car (below) was also the first one for which I changed my own oil. From then (1979) until now, I have never had an oil filter fall off my car.

Here's Why You Shouldn't Gamble With Your Oil Change

Ex. A: 1969 Charger. Oil Filter in place. So simple, a high school student can do it.

Yet, I have handled a surprisingly large number of cases where filters were not put on tight enough to stay put until the next oil change. I once had two oil change cases come into my office in the same week. One vehicle made it halfway home before it started acting "funny." The other one made it a few days. What was cool about the first one is that the client limped her vehicle into a gas station where a kind employee found the oil filter under the engine, resting on a cross member. The oil filter from the second case probably ended up in a ditch by the side of the road.

Besides the missing oil and the loose oil filters, there are other things which can be done wrong to a vehicle during an oil change. The filter can be cross-threaded. The new filter can be put on without noticing that the gasket from the old filter was stuck to the engine. The drain plug might be cross-threaded or not tightened properly. Have you ever read the instructions on How to Perform an Oil Change? Clearly, this is a minefield for the careless.

In Michigan, the failure of an oil change place to perform the operation correctly can result in a cause of action for violation of Michigan's Motor Vehicle Service and Repair Act which allows for the recovery of "damages" and attorney's fees and the costs of the action from the facility. Most states have similar laws. The downside is how do you measure damages? The shops often fight these cases – not so much on liability (how do you argue that you aren't at fault when these things happen?) but on damages. They often argue that you can probably get by with a tune up and a fresh load of oil. Seriously.

The good news is that I am seeing fewer of these cases these days which leads me to believe that shops are either getting better at training their employees or they are realizing it is cheaper to resolve the matter reasonably than it is to involve attorneys. Either way: If you can change the oil in your car yourself, do it. If not, find a place you trust and go there religiously. Watch them like a hawk when they do the work. NEVER just swing by someplace because you have a few minutes to kill. Otherwise, you might find yourself walking back to the oil change place to complain a few minutes later, following that convenient oil trail left by your car.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Steve Lehto has been practicing consumer protection and lemon law for 23 years in Michigan. He taught Consumer Protection at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law for ten years. He wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device both published by Chicago Review Press. Follow him on Twitter: @stevelehto