A cautionary tale about selling cars

Jeff Hayden has gotten himself into one fine mess. He sold his truck in 2007 to a man who promised to finish the paperwork for the vehicle sale. But maybe because the buyer didn't want to pay the sales tax, he never completed the title transfer.

The next year, the new owner was the bad guy in a hit-and-run accident. He apparently decided to make it look like Hayden was still the owner so he'd take the rap.

It worked.

Hayden got notice in the mail that he was being sued in justice of the peace court by the hit-and-run victim's insurance company, State Farm, which wanted him to pay $6,000 to cover the damage.

Hayden, of Alvarado, was frustrated by the letter because he knew the vehicle wasn't his and he wasn't involved in any accident. He's a truck driver, and he was on the road in Montana when the court date was scheduled.

In what he now admits is one of the biggest mistakes of his life, he ignored the court date and lost a default judgment of $6,000.

Then last month, he learned that his driver's license had been suspended because he hadn't paid the $6,000 to State Farm. Now he can't earn a living because he can't drive. He says he's been offered two jobs but had to turn them down until his license is restored.

He sought The Watchdog's help.

The Watchdog doesn't particularly like to help people who skip court dates and don't follow through properly on the paperwork for a vehicle sale. But Hayden has a family of five, and he is running out of money.

What annoys Hayden most is that he has had many conversations with the State Farm lawyer, and that the lawyer refuses to help him. Hayden even posted a nasty note about the lawyer on a website. Clearly, he's frustrated.

The lawyer, Michael McReynolds of Dallas, says as much as he would like to help Hayden, the paperwork shows that Hayden was the vehicle's owner at the time of the 2008 accident.

Hayden says the title along with two other filed documents are forgeries. The buyer, to cover his tracks, filed an amended certificate of title with the state showing that Hayden had incorrectly filled out the first one. Somebody else signed Hayden's name on that, he says.

The title does show that the vehicle was sold again by Hayden's buyer, but that part looks forged, too. The title has names crossed out and Hayden's name is inserted in between signatures.

Hayden has complained to the Clay County Sheriff's Department (the first buyer lived there), but he hasn't heard back. The office didn't respond to The Watchdog's request for comment.

The State Farm lawyer says he doesn't believe Hayden's story. The paperwork shows otherwise. The solution? McReynolds tells The Watchdog that he needs a police officer to inform him that the title is forged. Then State Farm can work to end the case.

Vehicle title problems are common enough that the state launched a campaign called "Protect your title, Texas" to inform Texans of proper selling procedures.

Hayden says he now knows that he is supposed to go to the tax office at a local courthouse or subcourthouse and work with a government clerk to finalize the sale. He learned this from a title analyst at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The analyst, William Lauder, helped Hayden figure out about the forged signatures. The official also told him he could be the "poster boy" for the "Protect your title, Texas" campaign.

"I'm the worst-case scenario right here," Hayden said, not so proudly.

Lauder told me that when someone sells a vehicle, the new owner doesn't keep the original license plates. That's supposed to help alleviate ownership problems, too. Hayden let the buyer keep his plates.

Hayden's restoration of his driver's license is not going to be easy. Aside from not driving a truck for a living, he says he can't drive to the store for milk.

McReynolds said that if a judgment based on an accident remains unsatisfied for more than 60 days, he can request that the Texas Department of Public Safety suspend a license. That's what he did.

McReynolds says he expects that Hayden would have to pay him the $6,000 in installments so he can get his license back.

"I refused to pay," Hayden said. "I'm not paying for a wreck I was not in with a truck I didn't own."

He may not have a choice.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter @DaveLieber