How a customer won a dirty fuel case against Woolies
A TRIBUNAL has ordered Woolworths pay a self-represented man thousands of dollars for selling him dirty fuel that damaged his car.
The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal judgment shows Peter Cohen comprehensively outflanked the $40 billion retail behemoth, putting on a case so complete and convincing that it could become a template for other aggrieved motorists.
"I understand this is quite a significant win," Mr Cohen, of Shalvey in western Sydney, told News Corp Australia yesterday.
Mr Cohen bought 37 litres of Vortex 98 fuel from Woolworths Caltex Newington just on July 25 last year.
He had not driven far before the car began to lose power in heavy M4 traffic.
He managed to get home but the next day the car didn't want to start. Eventually he got the Golf R going and drove slowly to Euro Automotive Servicing and Tuning at St Marys where he left it with his regular mechanic Sebastian Najder.
It remained there for nearly seven weeks, while an "extensive investigation and major repairs were carried out", according to the NCAT judgment.
Meanwhile Mr Cohen contacted Woolworths. In writing it denied selling him contaminated fuel or that it was liable for the damage to his car, saying nearly 4000L of Vortex 98 was sold at its station on July 25 and it had not got any other complaints.
After Mr Cohen received Mr Najder's written report in September he sent it to Woolworths, saying it proved contaminated fuel caused the problems. He offered Woolworths an opportunity to test a sample of the fuel from his car. It was declined and again Woolworths denied liability.
In December he took a sample to Intertek Testing Services. It found the sample contained "3 per cent free black to light brown coloured particulates". Mr Cohen sent Intertek's report to Woolworths. There was no response.
He had already applied to NCAT, seeking just over $2600 for repair and travel costs and the fuel report. NCAT heard the matter in March, with Mr Najder appearing as an expert witness.
Woolworths did not present any expert evidence, just pro-forma paperwork saying the fuel met quality standards when it left the terminal and hadn't been altered in transit. Tribunal member Philip French was unimpressed, describing the material as "mere bare assertions of fact".
Woolworths' representative fared better in arguing it was near impossible for only one car to be affected.
"This is a compelling submission that must be given considerable weight," Mr French said.
But it wasn't persuasive enough.
"It cannot be decisive of the case," he said. "It only positively proves that they did not complain."
In finding Woolworths breached the Australian Consumer Law's acceptable quality guarantee, Mr French said: "It appears to me that the respondent acted to its own peril in failing to establish a credible alternative hypothesis."
Mr Cohen was awarded more than $2300.
"I went to NCAT because I was adamant I was wronged," Mr Cohen said yesterday.
"I don't think Woolworths took my initial complaint seriously."
Asked if he had any advice for other consumers considering whether to take on a big company, Mr Cohen said: "You need to make sure that your argument is sound, even if you think you are in the right. The onus is on you to prove that you have been wronged. You need to have expert witnesses to support your argument."
A Woolworths spokesman said: "We regret the way Mr Cohen's complaint was handled and can understand his frustration with the process. We treat fuel quality very seriously and only source product that is certified as compliant with the Fuel Quality Standards Act."