By: Arlena Sawyers

When a consumer wants to buy a used vehicle with an unfixed safety recall from a CarMax Inc. store, who should be responsible for making sure the problem gets fixed?

Consumer advocacy groups say CarMax, the nation’s largest used-vehicle retailer, should do it — and before the sale. CarMax says it discloses the pending recall work, but the burden is on the consumer after the sale. Those opposing views have prompted a war of words between CarMax and consumer advocacy groups that deliberately bought a used vehicle from the retailer with open safety recalls on it to see how CarMax would handle the sale. On Nov. 30, Sean Kane, founder of the Safety Institute, paid $29,885.69 for a 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee from CarMax’s store in North Attleboro, Mass. The Safety Institute, in Rehoboth, Mass., is a nonprofit that focuses on injury prevention and product safety. Kane is also the founder of Safety Research & Strategies, also in Rehoboth, Mass., a vehicle and product safety company.

Recalls disclosed

clock_calendar_warning_800x600Both Kane and CarMax agree that CarMax disclosed that the Grand Cherokee had unrepaired safety recalls on it. Kane signed forms acknowledging that he knew of the recalls. But Kane said he was told about the recalls only after he asked if there were any recalls and that the salesperson played down the seriousness of the needed repairs.


CarMax contends that Kane knew about the open recalls before the sale and purchased the vehicle anyway. It said the he had “the opportunity to walk away or return the vehicle.”

According to Kane, the vehicle’s recalls involved a brake problem that could cause a crash without warning; intermittent stalling in traffic, which could cause a crash without warning; and faulty wiring in the visor that may short out and cause a fire.

Kane says he bought the Grand Cherokee at the request of the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety Foundation, of Sacramento, Calif.

Check with NHTSA

The retailer declined to comment. But in a press release Monday, CarMax detailed how every vehicle listed for sale on its website,, has a link to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s VIN Look-up website. The vehicle identification number for each vehicle listed is prepopulated on the link to make it easy to check whether there is an open recall on an individual vehicle.

CarMax also said consumers should have open recalls repaired immediately after a vehicle is purchased.

Most safety-related recall repairs are handled at a brand’s franchised new-car dealerships. CarMax, as a used-car specialist, recommends its customers go to new-car dealerships for that work.

‘Mixed messages’

Kane said CarMax touts that its vehicles undergo extensive safety inspections but is sending “mixed messages” around what’s really important.

“Why would they let me drive off with fixing it?” he said. “Had I not asked about the recalls, I’m pretty sure the salesperson would not have pulled up those recalls to show me.”

Kane still legally owns the vehicle. He said it will not be driven or sold before the recall repairs are done.

He added: “We never claimed we didn’t know there were recalls on the vehicles. I went in there as a consumer to try to understand how their process works and what happens when a consumer buys a vehicle with a recall.”

Cars on the lot

In a related development, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group Education Fund said an Oct. 28 study of 243 vehicles on the CarMax North Attleboro dealership lot found that 42 of them, or more than 17 percent, had open safety recalls that had not been repaired.

cars-recall-parking-lotThat study mirrored one in California in May.

Research by the California Public Interest Research Group and the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety Foundation found that 10 percent of the vehicles CarMax offered for sale at its Oxnard, Calif., store on May 20-21 and 9 percent of vehicles offered at its Sacramento South store on May 26-27 were subject to safety recalls.

“We have found that dealerships are often more likely to provide timely recall repair to customers rather than to a competitor, like CarMax,” the company said in a statement released the same day the CALPIRG study was released.