Misrepresentation in the Sale of an Automobile Dealership

The recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court in Butera v. Mitsubishi features a number of interesting points, not the least of which involves the importance of doing one’s homework before opening a new automobile franchise.  From a legal perspective, the case is interesting because it highlights the difficulty in pinning liability for negligent misrepresentation on a manufacturer entering a new market. 

In 2002, Mr Butera, a young lawyer working in St. Catharines, applied to Mitsubishi Canada for a Mitsubishi dealership which he wished to open in Niagara Falls.  In the proforma sales forecasts that he included with his application, he forecast that he would sell 180 new and 120 used vehicles in his first year of operation and 350 new and 125 used vehicles in an average year. 

Ultimately, he signed a Dealer Agreement with Mitsubishi and opened for business. 

By 2005, less than three years later, he claimed that his losses to date were about $500,000 and growing.  His dealership stopped selling cars in October, 2005, but maintained a service business.  It stopped carrying on business altogether in late 2007.

His sales figures were nowhere near his forecasts.  In 2002, he sold 14 new vehicles.  He sold 127 in 2003, 100 in 2004 and 29 in 2005. 

After closing, he sued various Mitsubishi entities for damages arising out of alleged misrepresentations which he claimed had induced him to enter into the Dealer Agreement. 

Mitsubishi had disclosed its sales levels in the United States and made comments about greatly expanded sales of their cars in the United States and Canada.  Mr. Butera claimed that the statements were flawed and misleading because they did not distinguish between fleet sales and actual sales.  He also claimed that many US sales resulted from a promotion to customers involving favourable credit terms (zero down payment, zero interest and zero payments for one year).  He insisted that all of these statements misled him into entering into the transaction as a result of which he and his companies lost over $3 million. 

On a factual basis, the Court found against Mr. Butera on a number of important points.

Firstly, the Court was satisfied that there was no evidence the statements presented to him of actual US sales were false. 

Secondly, the Court found that Mr. Butera knew or should have known of the distinction between fleet and customer sales and bore the burden of making further inquiry if he felt that it was important.

Finally, the Court determined that less than 1% of total sales of Mitsubishi cars in the United States during the relevant period were sold under the zero, zero, zero financing program. 

The important legal issue of the impact of a possible misrepresentation by Mitsubishi as to projected sales was determined with reference to a clause in the Dealer Agreement usually referred to in legal circles as an “entire agreement” clause.  This provision, which is now almost universal in these types of cases, specifically provided that the written agreement constituted the entire agreement between the parties and superseded any and all prior written or oral agreements or understandings.  This particular clause even provided that:

“Dealer agrees that any oral statements of any MMSCAN personnel shall be of no force or effect and that Dealer has not relied on any such oral statements in entering into this Agreement.”

The Court found that this clause directly impacted the heart of Mr. Butera’s claim, which was that Mitsubishi misrepresented the future prospects of sales of its cars in Canada based on its past performance in the United States.  As a result of the entire agreement clause, the Court found that this was not a viable argument even if Mitsubishi’s representatives had made misrepresentations.

There is another aspect of the case relating to the alleged misrepresentations which is worth noting.

In law, a misrepresentation can only form the basis of a claim if it is a statement relating to an existing and ascertainable fact.  Statements about prospective sales or other future events are regarded by the Court merely as expressions of opinion about the future.  If a vendor provides a forecast and the forecast results are not achieved, the forecast will not constitute an untrue statement of a material fact as a matter of law.  It probably will not constitute a misrepresentation giving rise to liability.  If the vendor negligently misrepresents existing facts, that may be a different story – unless an entire agreement clause applies.  But even an entire agreement clause won’t shield a vendor from an outright lie.

This case highlights the following points:

  1. When a manufacturer provides a forecast as to future results, don’t assume that this will give rise to liability in the event that the forecasts are not met; and
  2. An entire agreement clause will protect a vendor from liability for negligent misrepresentation.

Mr. Butera was buying into what was essentially a new venture.  Had he been buying an existing store and had misrepresentations been made to him about the sales results for the store to date, the result may well have been different if that information had been false.  When starting up a new venture, however, extra care should be taken. 

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