We were surprised to see that the Ferrari's title had Rick's signature forged on it, and the Italian shipping company was listed as the new owner.
Dear "Legal Files": My husband Rick and I, along with our friends, have encountered a bizarre set of circumstances with Shakespearean elements of trust and betrayal, possible fraud and forgery, and even a hurricane. We think it will interest you.
Having enjoyed ourselves immensely on the Copperstate 1000 and the Colorado Grand, the temptation to try an international rally was strong. When the opportunity to attend a vintage car rally in Italy came up last spring, we looked at each other and said, "Yes, let's do this!"
We were drawn in by the promises that the rally organizers would make all arrangements to ship the cars to Italy, handle customs and inspections, bring them to us at a luxury hotel in Tuscany, and provide a safety net of mechanics, pre-planned parking, and security. We happily entered, and took the extra precaution of sending our precious '72 Ferrari Daytona and our friends' mint '58 Mercedes Roadster from Texas to California so they could be shipped with the West Coast rally cars.
I was very worried about being told at the last minute of some paperwork or certification or some twist that would create a problem, so I contacted the rally organizers early with a number of questions. The responses I received were generally: "We've done this a zillion times" and "We'll tell you when you need to know" and "Don't worry about it, everything will be fine." For every ten questions asked, one would be answered. But eventually we received shipping information, and our cars were on their way.
And then I got a call from U.S. Customs
About a month later, I received a call from a U.S. Customs agent. He had found a sheet of paper with our names and contact info that I had left on the passenger seat of the Daytona, just in case. After a lengthy interrogation, he informed me that he was calling from Houston and that the shipping papers for our car listed its value at approximately 1/10th of its actual value and that it was designated for permanent export, not as a personal vehicle intended to be returned. Uh-oh.
Then he started questioning me about the Mercedes in the container. Was it mine? Oh, no, I told him, it belongs to our good friends who are going on the same rally.
So what is the problem and why is a Customs guy in Houston calling me when the cars were shipped from California?
After several days of multiple calls and emails, we pieced together that the cars (all of the ones from California) had been boxed up and sent by train to Houston, where they were being loaded onto a different ship from the one we had been told would carry them. The Customs computer system somehow recognized that our Daytona was grossly undervalued and rang the alarm.
When Customs opened the container, they found not only our car but also our friends' Mercedes, which was not listed on any paperwork anywhere, and which the computer showed had already arrived in Europe. In essence, Customs thought we were trying to smuggle two cars out of the country.
When I contacted the rally organizer for help, I was told that they were not responsible for any aspect of the shipping, we were on our own, bye-bye, and let us know how it turns out. Meanwhile, Customs set our container on the dock at the Port of Houston, where it sat during Hurricane Ike!
The hurricane passed, but still no help from the shipping company or the rally organizers, and Customs wouldn't even let us check the cars for damage. Then suddenly we were told that the paperwork was now okay and that the cars could be shipped as soon as some additional fees were paid. We refused and said we wanted to retrieve the cars and call the whole thing off. Magically, that very afternoon, the container was loaded and the ship left port.
There were no refunds for missing the rally
At this point, the cars were in transit but wouldn't get to Italy in time for the rally, we had no idea if there was a post-hurricane marlin belly up inside the container along with a foot of water, and no idea if the cars would clear Customs in Italy. The cherry on top was that the rally organizer bluntly informed us (without any of us ever even asking) that there could be no refunds of any kind for missing the rally-we should just rent cars and ride along. If we didn't, well, too bad, so sad, all the money we paid for the rally has been spent.
An informal conversation with our attorney included phrases like "maritime law," "hours of research," etc. We had already seen thousands of dollars go down the drain, and we didn't want to leave the cars in some kind of legal purgatory if we got into a lawsuit without having them in our possession, and couldn't figure out who to sue anyway. So we decided to let more of the situation unfold and hope for the best.
Having missed the rally, the four of us decided to go anyway, a month later, and do our own mini-rally, hoping that our cars would be drivable. The rally organizer's Italian agent (2fast4you) promised to get the cars out of Customs and hold them for us. We didn't know what to believe but took the chance.
We flew to Italy, and miraculously, our cars arrived there a day later and the agents performed perfectly. The cars were in generally good repair, other than a few mysteries of mileage that will never be solved. The agents helped us with a few minor mechanical issues and we hit the road the next day. We drove for a week, and generally had a wonderful time, thankfully with no big mechanical problems.
At the end of the week, we took the cars back to the agents, paid the shipper, and the cars made it back to Houston without further drama. The Ferrari title was returned along with the car, and we were surprised to see that the title assignment block on the back had Rick's signature forged on it, and the Italian shipping company was listed as the new owner of the car.
We surmised that the Customs agents probably saved our cars from being stolen entirely. This nerve-wracking experience has made us reluctant ever to try it again. But if we do, how do we keep this from happening a second time?-Nancy Rome, Dallas, TX
Legal Files Responds: International rallies are lots of fun, and offer an enjoyable way to experience another country up close and in an extraordinary environment. But as you can see from Nancy's tale of woe, there are many ways for plans to go awry.
First off, bear in mind that not all rally organizers are created equal. Entry fees can run to many thousands of dollars per car, and many liars can figure that there is a lot of profit potential here. Plus, organizing a rally can seem so simple to someone who hasn't done it before. Of course, it isn't simple, especially when one gets into moving cars from one country to another. We at SCM learned this the hard way when several of our staff tried to participate in a new car rally in China. You can read the account in the August 2007 "Legal Files" (p. 34), with results as miserable as Nancy and her group experienced.
The unreliable organizer sees car transport as just another detail, and simply finds a shipping company to which to delegate the task. His emphasis is often on low price, either to make the overall package more affordable, or to allow room for a commission to the organizer-or both.
Unless you are dealing with a very experienced and reputable organizer, "Legal Files" suggests you are better off arranging transport yourself with a transport company you can trust. The pitfalls of international shipping were well summarized by Martin Button of Cosdel International in the February 2009 "Legal Files" (p. 28), which is a must-read for anyone thinking of shipping a car anywhere.
Of course, Nancy has legal recourse against the rally organizer and the shipping company, but her reaction to her attorney's explanation is understandable. Since the shipping arrangements were made by the organizer, she should expect the shipping company to defend on the basis that it did exactly what the organizer asked and paid it to do.
The claim against the organizer seems easier, but there are two very practical problems. First, exactly where must Nancy file her lawsuit? Texas? Italy? Or somewhere else? And, once she receives a judgment against the rally organizer, will it be collectible? You can bet that the rally contract does not give Nancy the right to recover her attorney fees if she prevails, and you can already tell that is going to be a substantial amount.
Given the practical problems, pursuit of the legal claims can easily end up costing more than the value of the claim.
Before signing up for a rally, read the contract and determine how disputes are to be resolved. If the process is not practical, skip the rally, or take a philosophical attitude about it. Learn what it takes to get your car in and out of the countries involved, and make your own shipping arrangements. Recognize that you are risking the amount of the entry fee with little practical hope of recourse.
If the rally doesn't pan out, be prepared to create your own rally on the fly, and be prepared to make the best of a bad situation.