I bought a car in Virginia, but the car dealer did not give me title. May I sue the dealer?

By Andrew J. Salinas

Under Virginia law, a Board[1] licensed car dealer may provide you with temporary license plates and a certificate of temporary registration after you fully or partially purchase a vehicle.[2] The vehicle registration certificate needs “its date of issuance, the name and address of the purchaser, the identification number of the vehicle, the registration number to be used temporarily on the vehicle, the name of the state in which the vehicle is to be registered, the name and address of the person from whom the dealer acquired the vehicle, and whatever other information may be required by the [DMV]” to be legally valid.[3]

Regardless of whether the dealer does or, through no fault of their own, does not have the original title for the vehicle at the time you buy, it is your responsibility to make sure the temporary registration certificate is recorded by the DMV.[4] Once that happens, you receive a copy of the temporary registration certificate, which allows you to get the vehicle insured and lawfully drive it around on the road while you wait for transfer of title.[5]

When am I entitled to receive title?

Those temporary certificates of registration are only valid until either 30 days after they are issued or until the dealer delivers title to you.[6]

It has been 30 days and I still haven’t received title. What now?

If the dealer fails to deliver the certificate of title or certificate of origin to you or the DMV within the first 30 days, a couple of things can happen.

First, you can get a full refund for what you paid for the vehicle and return it to the dealer.[7]

Second, if you decide to notify the dealer you still want to keep the car, the dealer is required to deliver an application for title, a “copy of the bill of sale, all required fees and a written statement of facts describing the dealer’s efforts to secure the certificate of title or certificate of origin to the vehicle” to the DMV within the first 30 days period.[8] When the DMV receives those documents, the DMV may in its discretion issue a secondary temporary certificate of registration that would be valid for another 30 days.[9]

If after this 60-day period the dealer is still unable to produce your vehicle’s title, the DMV may extend temporary registration for an additional 90-day period.[10]

Okay it has been 150 days and I still don’t have my title, what are my rights?

After the secondary temporary certificate of registration period and the additional period expires, you have a couple of options according to Virginia law:

A.    Return the car and get a refund

Your first and most obvious option is to get a full refund. Virginia law dictates that you have a right to a full refund of all the payments you made towards the vehicle as long as you give the dealer notice that you’re returning the car before a title is issued.[11] But, one court has ruled that this also means that you are not entitled to a refund while any of the temporary registration periods are running.[12] Also keep in mind that any damage incurred to the vehicle while you had the keys and any accrued mileage after you return it will come out of your refund.[13]

B.    File a complaint about the dealer with the DMV Commissioner

Another option you can take is to report the dealer to the DMV Commissioner.[14] If you really feel slighted by the dealer and think getting a refund isn’t enough, you can bring a complaint to the DMV Commissioner who after conducting a hearing can outright suspend the dealer’s ability to issue temporary certificates of registration.[15] Doing so won’t net you any monetary benefit, but it can send a message to the car dealer to never sell a vehicle without possessing title again. If you do choose to go this route, remember to have any paperwork, emails, or text messages relating to the sale and the dealer’s failure to provide you with title ready for the hearing.

Keep in mind that these two options only apply to licensed car dealers who are unable to deliver title because it was lost or in another’s possession.[16] If you fail to pick up the title of certificate from the dealer after the first 30 days, one court has ruled that you’re out of luck on getting a refund on the car or collecting damages from the dealer if your car is impounded.[17] Likewise, Virginia law considers title transferred if you drive the car off the lot and the dealer has already filled out the paperwork, even if it has not delivered the paperwork to the DMV yet.[18] As of this writing, it is an open question whether you can sue a licensed dealer specifically for failing to provide title after providing a buyer with a temporary certificate of registration under Virginia Code § 46.2-1542. A federal court in Virginia ruled in 2001 that a private right of action may exist from this part of the state code.[19]

What if the dealer never had the title to the car in the first place? What can I do then?

A.    Virginia Consumer Protection Act

The Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA) establishes a private right of action for a customer aggrieved by a fraudulent or deceptive consumer transaction within the Commonwealth of Virginia.[20] A “consumer transaction” includes the sale or offering for sale of “goods or services to be used primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.”[21] This section applies to car sales.[22] The VCPA also prohibits misrepresenting goods for having certain characteristics and using any form of deception in connection with a consumer transaction.[23]

If you sue a car dealer under the VCPA and win, you would be entitled to recover actual damages as a result of your lack of title (e.g. impound and other registration costs).[24] If a court finds that the dealer willfully deceived you into thinking they had title, it may award you up to three times the actual damages you incurred.[25] You could also be entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees – see our prior blog post about this here.[26]

B.    Common Law Breach of Contract and Fraud Claims

Under the Virginia common law, a plaintiff asserting a claim for breach of contract must prove the following elements:

1.     There exists a legally enforceable obligation of a defendant to a plaintiff;
2.     The defendant’s violation or breach of that obligation; and
3.     Injury or damage to the plaintiff caused by the breach of obligation.[27]

Virginia common law also provides a private right of action for fraud when a plaintiff can prove by clear and convincing evidence that:

1.     The seller intentionally and knowingly;
2.     Made a false representation;
3.     Of a material fact;
4.     That was relied upon by the plaintiff buyer; and that
5.     Resulted in damaged to the party misled.[28]

Under these common law claims you could be entitled to receive any costs associated with the non-transfer of title and potentially punitive damages that punish the dealer for their deceptive conduct. Keep in mind that if you are awarded damages under the VCPA, you are barred from recovery based on state common law.[29]

C.    Civil Penalties

Virginia law also states that it is a Class 3 misdemeanor to sell, trade, exchange, or barter a motor vehicle, trailer, or semitrailer without first having secured title for it or without legally having in their possession a certificate of title for the vehicle.[30] This means the dealer could potentially receive a fine of up to $500.00[31] if you chose to report them to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.[32]

Remember that VCPA and state common law claims have a two-year statute of limitations that accrue either when you discover the fraud or reasonably should have discovered the fraud.[33] If you have experienced a title issue from a licensed or unlicensed car dealer, contact Steven Krieger, PLLC for a consultation.

[1] Motor Vehicle Dealer Board (§ 46.2-1503; 46.2-1542(A)).
[2] § 46.2-1542(A).
[3] Id.
[4] § 46.2-1542(A)-(B); Va. Code Ann. § 46.2-630.
[5] § 46.2-1542(A).
[6] § 46.2-1542(B).
[7] Id.
[8] 46.2-1542(C)
[9] Id.
[10] § 46.2-1542(D).
[11] § 46.2-1542(B).
[12] Rolander v. Luxury Auto Sales of Dumfries, 77 Va. Cir. 114, 2008 Va. Cir. LEXIS 129 (Prince William 9/17/2008).
[13] § 46.2-1542(B).
[14] § 46.2-1542(E). See also Lewis v. Commonwealth, 28 Va. App. 164, 170 (1998)(Va. Code Ann. § 46.2-1542 provides that the issuance of a temporary certificate of ownership pursuant to § 46.2-1542 shall have the effect of vesting ownership to the vehicle in the purchaser for the period that the certificate remains effective.)
[15] § 46.2-1542(E)
[16] Nigh v. Koons Buick Pontiac GMC, Inc., 143 F. Supp. 2d 535, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5374 at *9 (E.D. Va. 2001), aff’d, 319 F.3d 119 (4th Cir. 2003)(ruling that § 46.2-1542’s provisions did not apply to car dealership who had possession of vehicle’s title when it sold the vehicle to plaintiff).
[17] Rolander, 77 Va. Cir. at 115-15, 118.
[18] Wicker v. Nat’l Sur. Corp., 330 F.2d 1009, 1012-13 (4th Cir. 1964).
[19] Nigh, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5374 at *2-*3 (E.D. Va. 2001), aff’d, 319 F.3d 119 (4th Cir. 2003) (holding that § 46.2-1542 only applies to licensed vehicle dealers and that, despite much of Title 46.2 only creating administrative remedies, a private right of action may spring from this statute).
[20] Va. Code. § 59.1-200.
[21] Va. Code. § 59.1-198.
[22] Alexander v. Southeastern Wholesale Corp., 978 F.Supp.2d 615, 621-22 (E.D. Va. 2013).
[23] Va. Code § 59.1-200(A)(5), (14).
[24] Va. Code § 59.1-204(A).
[25] Id.
[26] Va. Code § 59.1-204(B).
[27] Sunrise Continuing Care, LLC v. Wright, 277 Va. 148, 671 S.E.2d 132, 135 (Va. 2009) (quoting Filak v. George, 267 Va. 612, 594 S.E.2d 610, 614 (Va. 2004)).
[28] State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Remley, 270 Va. 209, 218, 618 S.E.2d 316 (2005)(quoting Prospect Development Co. v. Bershader, 258 Va. 75, 85, 515 S.E.2d 291 (1999)).
[29] Va. Code § 59.1-204(A).
[30] Va. Code § 46.2-617.
[31] Va. Code § 18.2-11.
[32]To file a complaint, visit the Attorney General Office’s website at: https://www.oag.state.va.us/consumer-protection/index.php/file-a-complaint.
[33] Va. Code §§ 59.1-204.1; 8.01-248.

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11 Responses
  1. Thanks for pointing out that it is our responsibility to make sure the temporary registration certificate is
    recorded by the DMV. This is helpful because my husband and I are planning to buy the car of our
    neighbor. We are hoping to find a reliable company on Monday that can help us get title registration the
    fastest way.

  2. I purchased a new car from Koons Woodbridge Ford, Woodbridge, VA, on August 14, 2021. I paid cash.
    We live in Maryland. I was told that I should receive title within 60 days and was issued temporary VA
    tags and registration that I was obliged to renew on September 13. I received title to the car from the
    Maryland MVA around the end of September. I called the dealership several days after I received the title
    to confirm they had the tags. However, I was told they are having problems registering the car in
    Maryland through the CVR (Computer Vehicle Registration) system. Numerous calls to the dealership
    have produced no results and I am still without the permanent Maryland tags. I am unable to speak with
    the employees at the dealership responsible for insuring that customers receive their permanent tags
    rapidly nor have I received any indication when I will receive them. Also, the dealership has not so far
    renewed my temporary tags.

  3. I have the exact same problem and everyone says get a lawyer. Well i can't afford one. Not sure what to
    do. The dealer lost it then blamed me i have it all in Facebook messages. Almost 4 months no title

  4. We had purchased a car in Virginia back in 2011 and paid it off fully 5 years later. i have sent letter after
    letter to the VA DMV to release the title so that i can register the car in nearby NC. NC has already issued
    citations as the car is not registered in that state past the grace period.
    The VA DMV now says they have never received the title (a lie, supported by dealership documentation
    notarized and scanned 5 years prior) and has more than once now cashed checks in an application for
    duplicate title while still claiming they've never received application for duplicate title. Again, I pay them to
    provide a lost title, they take the money, and then claim the title is lost, and demand additional payment.
    This is theft of services.
    All in all, the VA DMV maleficence in refusing to deliver a title for a car now 10 years old has cost us close
    to $5,000 in damages and lost time with no clear solution on how to obtain the title for a vehicle i had
    owned for 10 years.

  5. In April of 2021, my daughter traded in a 2013 Hyundai that was still being financed that is registered in
    my husbands name for a newer car. Dealership was told that payments are still being made and that car
    is registered in her dads name. She was told no problem, that her dad didn’t need to sign anything right
    then and there, that they would email him and sign that way and that what ever the amount left over
    would be tacked onto her new car. Everything went fine. Couple days go by and still no email for my
    husband to sign off on the old car. I have her call back and she’s told don’t worry about it, they didn’t need
    it. In May they call her and tell her they need the title. She tells them she doesn’t have the title as
    payments were being made and that she told them this earlier. Well apparently, there was a
    miscommunication somewhere at the dealership and they didn’t add in the off balance to the old car onto
    her new one and told her she had to pay them $9500.00. I told her to let me call them. I called and told
    them that we were not going to pay them anything and that the only option I would consider is if they redo
    the loan paperwork and add back in the $2500.00 for the trade in and give us our old car back or I would
    get an attorney. They agreed to giving us our car back. I picked up the car, put the plates back on it as I
    hadn’t deactivated the plates yet and came home with it. This is where my problem comes in. Once
    home, my husband goes thru the car and finds sale paperwork and a temp. registration for the car to
    another person. I immediately get onto DMVNOW to check the registration that lists the cars registered in
    his name and the car is not listed. I call the dealership back to find out what’s going on and am told don’t
    worry the car is still registered to my husband and when told I have paperwork showing that they sold the
    car with temp. registration in someone else’s name they tell me that the car wasn’t sold and that we are
    good. It has now been 3-4 weeks and the car is still not showing up when I log onto DMVNOW and I can’t
    get into DMV until mid July. Both my husband and I have both called and left messages to the dealership
    to call us with no one returning our calls. Not sure what to do at this point as we can’t drive the vechicle
    without worrying about going to jail if pulled over.

  6. Hello, I purchased a car from Virginia dealership as an Out of State Purchase. Its been over 90 days and
    no Title in mail. My Bank loan went into defaulter list due to missing title per Bank’s policy. Meanwhile,
    Bank needs some documents stating dealership has made title appeal to DMV but dealership isn't
    cooperating on getting those documents.Per my contract i am eligible to turn back my car in with full
    refund minus any damages or mile depreciation set by IRS rules. The dealership saying for out of state
    Tag title transfers they have backup for couple of months. What are my best chances to get compensated
    for all the troubles including loan default and getting refunds on car? Thanks in Advance

  7. It was helpful when you explained that car dealers can provide temporary license plates and registration
    upon purchase of a vehicle. According to my knowledge, there are even some ways for dealers to
    optimize placement of the license plates such as using tag bags to easily attach them. It's a good idea to
    check the laws in your state to make sure requirements for temporary license plate placement are being
    met.

  8. Purchased vehicle from Landmark Honda on Feb. 24, 2021. Less than two weeks later (today), they have
    already cited some "issue" regarding
    registering my car in Maryland where I live (Baltimore). They claim needing a copy of my old registration
    card for the car I traded in- an old 2000 Honda Civic. ; I made an appointment with Maryland Motor
    Vehicle Department and was told by an agent and supervisor that the dealer was mistaken: once I turn
    the plates in I have no further association with the old car; the dealer has the car and its title in its
    possesion, and this has no bearing on registering the newly purchased car. My question – What is this
    dealer attempting to do?
    Why the lack of an explanation? Thank you for your consideration of my comment David Johnson (443)
    690 -6166

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About the Author

Steven Krieger and guests (lawyers and non-lawyers) will periodically post about topics relevant to his firm and practice areas. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

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