MEMPHIS (WMC-TV) - The two most important things you should take away from this story:
1. Check your auto insurance policy for ORIGINAL auto body parts coverage.
2. Really READ your auto body repair estimates from now on.
That's because your policy may give priority to aftermarket replacement parts, even as Mid-South laws give consumers the right to choose between original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and aftermarket parts.
"It's about economics," said Bennita Wade, an independent Memphis insurance agent. "It's a cost issue, and in order to put your car back together as economically as possible, the recycled parts are going to be the parts of choice (for most insurance companies)."
But Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi laws give consumers the choice by requiring body shops to disclose their preference for aftermarket replacement parts on their repair estimates (please see our state law breakdown at the bottom of this story).
"That estimate has to expressly disclose that they're going to use aftermarket parts if that's what they're going to use," said Memphis attorney Jeff Rosenblum. "They can't use aftermarket parts unless you expressly tell them it's OK to do so.
"You've got the right to say, 'I want the original equipment.'"
As auto repair expert Bill Fowler of Bill Fowler's Bodyworks in Southaven, MS, demonstrated, aftermarket STRUCTURAL body parts -- parts that contribute directly to the structural integrity of vehicles -- are much weaker than OEM parts.
With a saw, Fowler was able to slice right through an aftermarket front-bumper reinforcement in 16 seconds. With the same saw -- and a fresh blade -- all he could do was scratch the finish on the comparable OEM front-bumper reinforcement.
"Aftermarket structural body parts are just flagrantly deficient," said Fowler.
In the case of a front-bumper reinforcement, Fowler said an aftermarket part's deficiency could contribute to the failure of the airbag sensor.
"So that the airbag either deploys prematurely or does not deploy at all," he said. "We're talking about passenger safety."
"There are over 10 million car accidents each year in the U.S., and there has never been a single documented case of a traffic fatality or injury attributed to the use of aftermarket parts," said Eileen A. Sottile, co-chair of the Auto Body Parts Association Legislation & Regulation Committee, in an e-mail to Action News 5.
She added, "Quality aftermarket replacement parts are readily available to consumers, are typically 26-50 percent less expensive, and have warranties exceeding those offered by the car companies."
Russ Rader, spokesperson for the nation's leading crash test authority, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said, "We had been working with an aftermarket parts certification organization to look into the issue of structural parts. There is no reason that aftermarket parts can't be reversed-engineered to meet original specs."
Concerns over the liability of aftermarket structural replacement parts and a lengthy class-action suit in Illinois (Avery vs. State Farm) moved State Farm to suspend coverage of aftermarket structural parts in 1999.
"Of course, we do prescribe other types of aftermarket vehicle parts (such as radiators, batteries and the like)," said State Farm spokesperson Dick Luedke in an e-mail reply to the Action News 5 Investigators.
Auto repair experts are quick to differentiate between aftermarket STRUCTURAL and aftermarket COSMETIC parts. Collision expert Michael Whitlock of Collisionworx in East Memphis said consumers can trust certified aftermarket replacements on cosmetic parts that don't have a bearing on a vehicle's structural integrity, like fenders.
"Ask the body shop to prove to you that the aftermarket cosmetic part is CAPA-certified (Certified Automotive Parts Association)," said Whitlock. CAPA-certified parts will be clearly marked with the CAPA decal. "The parts should also have passed a U.S. Department of Transportation inspection, which will be indicated with a DOT-sticker."
Whitlock said aftermarket cosmetic parts can save considerable cost in both repairs and insurance premiums -- plus include warranties -- as long as consumers request BEFORE the repair to see the estimate and to inspect the parts for CAPA certification and DOT inspection.
Wade suggested if your insurance policy gives priority to aftermarket parts, talk to your agent about the cost vs. benefits of adding OEM parts coverage to your policy.
MID-SOUTH LAWS RE: AFTERMARKET REPLACEMENT PARTS
* TENNESSEE: When aftermarket crash parts are intended for use by an insurer, the written estimate must clearly identify each such part and the following disclosure must appear or be attached to the estimate:
"This estimate has been prepared based on the use of one or more crash parts supplied by a source other than the manufacturer of your motor vehicle. Warranties applicable to these replacement parts are provided by the parts manufacturer or distributor rather than by the manufacturer of your vehicle."
Tennessee law adds that aftermarket parts CANNOT be used AT ALL "...on current year model or immediate prior year model motor vehicles without the claimant's express permission."
* ARKANSAS: Arkansas requires this written disclosure to insured consumers on the repair estimate:
"In the repair of your covered motor vehicle under the physical damage coverage provisions of this policy, we may require or specify the use of motor vehicle parts not made by the original manufacturer. These parts are required to be at least equal in terms of fit, quality, performance, and warranty to the original manufacturer parts they replace."
Arkansas also requires original manufacturer replacement parts to be used if the vehicle is still under its manufacturer's original warranty.
* MISSISSIPPI: Mississippi requires this written disclosure to insured consumers on the repair estimate:
"This estimate has been prepared based on the use of aftermarket crash parts supplied by a source other than the manufacturer of your motor vehicle. The aftermarket crash parts used in the preparation of this estimate are warranted by the manufacturer or distributor of such parts rather than the manufacturer of your vehicle."