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Mercedes-Benz must pay $482,000 for ‘LEMON’

A judge has ordered Mercedes-Benz USA LLC to pay $482,000 in damages and legal fees to a Wisconsin customer who was sold a defective car and not given a refund on time.

Vince Megna, a Milwaukee lawyer who represents the customer, said he believes the judgment is the largest involving a single car under a state “lemon law,” which protect consumers who are sold junk cars. The judge is expected to sign the final order as early as Friday.

Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman Donna Boland said the company, a unit of the German car maker Daimler AG, is disappointed the judge overturned an earlier verdict in favor of the company. The spat over the 2005 Mercedes-Benz E 320 has already dragged on more than four years, and the company’s lawyer on Friday asked the court to put the judgment on hold pending an appeal.

While states have a variety of lemon laws, Wisconsin’s is one of the strongest. It allows customers who buy cars that don’t run or can’t be repaired to demand a replacement or refund. Manufacturers have 30 days to respond and can be ordered to pay double the purchase price plus legal fees for violating the law.

Bob Silverman, a prominent lemon law attorney in Ambler, Pa. who was not involved in the case, agreed it was one of the largest judgments for a car he’s seen and was an important victory for consumers.

“This one result is very important to the entire auto industry,” Silverman said. “It teaches them a lesson they ought to comply with the law promptly or they are going to have to pay in the end.”

‘A complete nightmare’
Despite the pending judgment, customer Marco Marquez, a 37-year-old businessman from Waukesha, called the case “a complete nightmare” and said he was still waiting for his money back. Once a big fan of Mercedes-Benz who has owned several of its cars, he now says he’ll never buy another.

It all started when Marquez, who owns Mexican restaurants in Waukesha and Janesville, purchased the E 320 for $56,000 from a Milwaukee dealership in 2005.

Almost immediately, the car often would not start. The battery was replaced multiple times, but the problem continued. After several repair attempts, the dealership said the problem could not be fixed.

Marquez hired Megna, who sent the company a refund demand in October 2005. After a few weeks, an employee tried to talk Marquez into taking a replacement instead. He declined and again asked for a refund. At one point, the employee said he should fire his lawyer and deal with them on his own.

The company finally agreed to the refund, but failed to provide one within 30 days. On the 31st day, Megna filed the lawsuit on behalf of Marquez seeking double damages and attorneys’ fees.

Mercedes-Benz has acknowledged the car was defective, but for years has accused Marquez of acting in bad faith.

The company says an employee asked Marquez for information about his auto loan on the 30th day so the refund could be granted, but Marquez failed to follow through. Megna said Mercedes-Benz had the information it needed for the refund but was stalling.

Ruling overturned
A judge ruled in Marquez’s favor in 2007, awarding $202,000 in damages and legal fees. But an appeals court in 2008 overturned that decision and ordered additional proceedings, saying a jury should decide whether Marquez intentionally prevented the company from giving the refund on time.

A jury sided with the company last year, agreeing Marquez acted in bad faith. But in a rare move, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren overturned the verdict, saying it was not backed up by evidence. He ruled in Marquez’s favor, citing a clear “lack of urgency” by Mercedes-Benz to refund his money.

A series of rulings by Bohren have calculated the damages for Marquez at roughly $168,000 (double the purchase price plus interest), plus $314,000 in costs and legal fees for Megna and other lawyers.

In the meantime, Marquez has continued to drive the vehicle in question, which now has 56,000 miles. He said it was back in the shop for repairs twice last year but has been “working fine” lately. Still, he can barely contain his anger at the company he once admired.

“Frustrated is really an understatement,” he said. “You put that much faith in a car company and you give your hard-earned money to that company and then you are basically let down. You drop $50,000 for a car that doesn’t work.”

China quake survivors spend second night in freezing cold

Battling bitingly cold weather and a lack of oxygen, rescue workers clawed with their bare hands through the rubble of homes and schools toppled by the 6.9 magnitude quake that hit Yushu county in Qinghai province on Wednesday.

Officials said medical teams and supplies such as tents and quilts were on their way to the zone, where doctors set up makeshift hospitals to treat victims of the deadliest quake in China in two years.

But thousands spent another night without shelter in freezing temperatures after the quake destroyed almost all the mudbrick and wooden houses in Jiegu, the local capital, and flattened schools.

“I lost my husband and I lost my house,” Gandan, a Jiegu resident, told AFP, her son and daughter at her side. All three were living in a tent with other people, with one bowl of barley to share.

“We don’t know what to do, we have no food,” she said, standing by the tent a stone’s throw from her collapsed mud and brick house.

China quake devastates stunned town

The number who perished rose to 760, including dozens of children, while 11,477 were injured, the official Xinhua news agency said, quoting rescue coordinators.

The death toll is expected to rise further, with 243 still buried, and local officials say they were short of medical supplies and large digging equipment.

“The rescue job in this disaster zone faces many difficulties,” said Miao Chonggang, of the China Earthquake Administration, which is coordinating more than 7,000 rescuers.

President Hu Jintao cut short a Latin American tour and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao postponed a trip to Southeast Asia.

Hu told a news conference in Brasilia the quake was “a huge calamity which resulted in big losses of human life”.

Chinese president calls quake ‘huge calamity’

Wen on Thursday visited the quake zone, an underdeveloped area of the Tibetan plateau known as the “Roof of the World”.

“The top priority is to save people. We will never give up even if there is only a slim hope,” Wen told a meeting at the quake-relief headquarters in Yushu, according to Xinhua.

Soldiers, police and firefighters used shovels, iron bars and bare hands to dig through the mangled piles of concrete and rubble from 15,000 toppled homes.

Foreign governments offered help as international aid officials warned that the priorities would be providing shelter, medical aid, food and water and ensuring sanitation to prevent the spread of disease.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of Internet users have been showing their solidarity with the quake victims by posting virtual flowers in online “mourning halls” and donating to appeals, Xinhua said.

Jiegu lies around 800 kilometres (500 miles) by road from the provincial capital Xining, about 4,000 metres above sea level, meaning rescue workers from outside the region struggled to cope with the lack of oxygen.

The government said electricity and phone links had been restored to dozens of towns but the difficult terrain, including deep canyons, and the bitter cold and remoteness of the area were hampering rescue efforts.

Dazed survivors told harrowing stories of loved ones crushed under their homes.

“There are 10 people in my family and only four of us escaped. One of my relatives died. All the others are buried under the rubble,” Samdrup Gyatso, 17, told Xinhua after his two-storey home crumbled.

Facts on China quake zone

Among the dead were at least 66 pupils and 10 teachers, Xinhua said, quoting local authorities, as grieving parents waited for news near the ruins of the schools, where discarded school books and clothes lay.

Xinhua said a baby boy had been born in a tent near the epicentre shortly after the quake.

“It must be the first life that came to the world after the disaster,” Huang Changmei, a doctor, told the agency.

“The baby brought hope to the ruined place.”

The devastation was reminiscent of the huge quake in May 2008 in Sichuan province, where thousands of children were among 87,000 deaths when their shoddily-constructed schools collapsed.

Schoolbooks strewn in China quake rubble as children perish

Xu Mei, of the education ministry, denied a media report that around 200 children had been buried in the ruins of a primary school in Wednesday’s quake.

In Beijing, Zou Ming, the head of the government’s disaster relief department, said nearly 40,000 tents, 120,000 articles of clothing, 120,000 quilts and food were being dispatched.

Chile toll limited by planning

SANTIAGO, Chile – After experiencing one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike the earth in more than a century, Chileans accelerated their rescue, aid and security efforts in damaged regions Sunday but also took pride in the comparatively low death toll, a result widely attributed to the country’s meticulous planning and preparation.

The Chilean government dispatched troops to keep order in the hard-hit city of Concepcion, and President Michelle Bachelet opened the door to international aid a day after saying that “we generally do not ask for help.” Her remarks came after a lengthy meeting with advisers convinced her, she said, that the country faces “a catastrophe of such unthinkable magnitude that it will require a giant effort to recover.” Experts said repairs will take years and will probably cost tens of billions of dollars.

While the death toll rose steadily to more than 700, according to a midday estimate, it remained a small fraction of the tally from a far less powerful earthquake last month in Haiti that claimed at least 220,000 lives. That temblor was more shallow and much closer to a large population center, the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. But the deaths there were mostly because of widespread building collapses, which Chilean cities did not experience.

Earthquake scientists, building engineers and political scientists in Chile and the United States agreed that even though half a million homes were heavily damaged during more than 120 seconds of shaking, the fact that so many Chileans survived was a testament to the nation’s enactment and enforcement of stringent building codes.

“We would have expected that an 8.8 earthquake would have done a lot more damage,” said Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. “The people in Chile have experience with earthquakes that saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.”

The earthquake, centered 200 miles southwest of the capital, was one of at least a dozen in Chile since 1973 that were larger than magnitude 7. The quakes release stresses between two tectonic plates that are moving past each other at a rate roughly one-third faster than the plates that define the San Andreas fault in California, according to Jonathan Bray, a professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

“Unlike in Haiti, people think about earthquakes all the time in Chile. It’s in their mind,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “This is a country that can mobilize resources and meet these national challenges.”

Chile has relatively low levels of corruption, making enforcement of building codes more credible than in other Latin American countries; its rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is 25, just six spots below the United States, while Haiti’s is 168.

Several U.S. disaster relief experts cautioned, however, that the Chilean government should be careful not to become overconfident. While Bachelet said at her news conference Sunday that the country needed field hospitals, water-purification plants, temporary bridges and experts in damage assessment, her plea was not immediately conveyed through official channels to Washington or the International Red Cross.

“We have resources that are positioned to deploy, should the Chilean government ask for our help,” President Obama said after speaking with Bachelet on Saturday. But Virginia Staab, the State Department’s spokeswoman for Western Hemisphere affairs, said late Sunday that while the United States has placed some search-and-rescue teams, field hospitals and medics on alert, “there have been no official requests right now.” The only U.S. aid provided so far, she said, was small amounts of water and food, as well as satellite communications and imagery of areas that have not yet been reached by rescue personnel.

Speaking of Bachelet’s statement, Staab said, “If she is looking for all of those [items] from us, we will likely provide them.” She added that Washington was hoping for some “clarity” by Monday morning on Chile’s request.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long planned to spend this week in Latin America, will arrive in Santiago on Tuesday morning, officials said. Once there, she intends to reiterate the administration’s willingness to assist.

The Red Cross released a statement Sunday calling the earthquake the worst disaster to hit Chile in 50 years — another major temblor occurred in 1960 — and said that six of Chile’s 15 geographic zones received catastrophic damage. So far, the American and international chapters of the Red Cross have released several hundred thousand dollars to their Chilean affiliate to fund search-and-rescue and first-aid efforts.

But Tracy Reines, director of the American Red Cross’s international response center, said that “we’re standing by, waiting” for a government request for more substantial aid. She noted that “you certainly want to get assistance quickly, but it does not have to be international assistance. . . . It can come from within Chile.”

Julia E. Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Chile will probably accomplish a lot on its own. “The Haiti and Chilean experiences dramatize the enormous differences between what we sloppily think of as one region. In Chile, you have an investment over decades in creating functioning institutions with a reliable tax base that produces a revenue stream with accountability of elected leaders. You have a functioning state and solid governance” that will make its response significantly better, Sweig said.

Police said more than 100 people died in Concepcion, one of the country’s largest cities, about 70 miles from the epicenter. Dozens of people were trapped inside a 14-story building that toppled, and at least 20 bodies were removed as teams of firefighters crawled through the wreckage, searching for signs of life. The Associated Press reported that 16 people had been pulled out alive. The city’s university caught fire as gas and power lines snapped. Many streets were littered with rubble.

As food, water and gasoline become scarce in Concepcion, looting erupted. Police using tear gas initially attempted to stop the looters. A battle developed inside a supermarket and ended only when police allowed local residents to form long lines and remove essential items for free. Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, the mayor of Concepcion, said, “We are going to have social explosion if aid is not received today.”

The Chilean air force sent a 747 filled with police officers to the region in an attempt to regain control. Military roadblocks were set up outside some cities to keep outsiders from joining the looting. Francisco Vidal, the Chilean minister of defense, announced a curfew and said 10,000 troops will be sent to the areas most affected by the earthquake.

At sunrise on Sunday, those who attempted to reenter their damaged homes to retrieve goods and food were forced to evacuate again when a powerful 6.3-magnitude aftershock hit, further complicating rescue efforts. But by midday, emergency workers from the capital had fanned out to a 375-mile stretch of coastline where the majority of the residents have no access to food, water or electricity. Communication with even larger cities was sporadic, while many minor outlying villages and smaller cities had not been reached by day’s end.

“Our biggest problem is in the Juan Fernandez region [the Robinson Crusoe Islands],” said Ivan de la Maza, regional governor of the hard-hit Valparaiso region. Multiple ocean swells estimated at 30 feet — 10 times as high as the relatively mild tsunami waves that reached Hawaii — demolished the islands’ coastal villages, 415 miles west of the mainland.

Residents there did not feel the earthquake, and most of them were asleep when huge ocean swells flooded the town at 6 a.m. Saturday. When rescue crews arrived Sunday, they found that the tsunami had churned houses and boats into mountains of debris before pulling them back into the Pacific. Aerial photos reveal streets that have been wiped off the map. The islands are home to an estimated 600 permanent residents, with 200 tourists believed to be visiting, many at waterside bed-and-breakfasts.

With most homes built of wood and lightly balanced on foundations, the structures first floated inland, then were smashed by subsequent swells described by the local mayor as “a train” of 10-foot-high waves.

In Santiago, thousands of families dragged their mattresses outside to sleep on the streets, fearing aftershocks.

“No one brings us anything. We are stuck here,” said Daniel Garcia, 28, a Peruvian immigrant who spent the night in the Barrio Brazil neighborhood, sleeping on the street with his family. The family dragged mattresses down two flights of stairs, piled a television atop a stack of rubble and used wreckage to build a makeshift shelter.