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Luxury Car Restoration Fraud: The Scary Story of Defenders Northwest LLC and Its Owners Brian Hall and Michele Hall

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Americans are often in love with cars, and they invest money and time to restore, service, and tune them. When they leave their car with a mechanic or a body shop, most are not aware of the risks they assume in turning over their valuable possession to a third party.  We think that just as when we leave our keys with valets at restaurants and hotels, our cars will be returned to us promptly and without damage.  We recently came across an unfortunate story about how a major car restoration project went terribly wrong.  This story, which is ongoing, teaches car enthusiasts a valuable lesson about the dangers of entrusting their cars to automotive shops even when everything checks out on social media and yelp. 

Last year seven-figure lawsuit against Brian T. Hall and Michele A. Hall, and their company, Defenders Northwest, LLC, and a related company (Autohome USA), was filed in California state court. The doozy of a lawsuit alleges that Brian Hall and his wife and business partner, Michele Hall, are fraudsters and when they are not defrauding customers, they are marketing and selling illegal Land Rover Defender parts through their website www.defendersnorthwest.com. We know that many things can be alleged in a lawsuit, and it seems that prior to this legal scandal, Defenders Northwest LLC was a small specialty shop that had credo on Land Rover Defender forums and catered to do-it-yourself Land Rover enthusiasts, many of whom gave the Halls good feedback. “It is a relationship business in a tight community of offroad junkies. I was shocked when I learned that Brian and Michele stood accused of defrauding their customers,” pointed out a former Defenders Northwest client, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. An online  video suggests that there is a media investigation into the incident. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWUIEmNA974

The Halls and their Land Rover Defender restoration and parts sales shop are based in Gig Harbor, Washington, where they provide parts and restoration services to the Land Rover Defender community. Their lawyer and alleged partner is Shawn Harju, a former construction litigation attorney who now seems to work closely with the Halls. Gig Harbor is a small, peaceful town of about 11,000 residents. Public records and social media seem to show that Brian Hall, who used to race motorcycles and worked at Black & Decker before turning to his hobby of fixing old Defender trucks, grew up in Southern California, while his wife Michele Hall is a Gig Harbor native. Despite the reincarnation of the Defender line in recent years, the vintage Defenders continue to be desirable because of their ruggedness and rich safari and off-road history.

The 63-page lawsuit claims that Brian and Michele Hall failed to deliver a vintage Land Rover they were contracted to restore. Allegedly, the Halls kept making up excuses as to why the 1980s Land Rover truck that they were entrusted with could not be delivered. Incredulous excuses mounted. Finally, the customers hired lawyers and it became apparent that the restoration project may have been a big lie.

Allegedly the vehicle entrusted to Defenders Northwest LLC and Brian and Michele Hall was used to obtain sponsored parts at the SEMA automotive event without the customers’ permission. SEMA is a trade industry event for the automotive specialty equipment manufacturers to display alongside automotive manufacturers to debut new, innovative products, and connect with industry buyers from all over the world. According to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the restoration project, which ran up to mid-six figures of unaccounted fees and allegedly fabricated invoices, was a desperate stall tactic that lasted almost 8 years, when finally “Brian and Michele just refused to deliver the truck and started to demand more money,” the lawyer for the customers.  According to the documentation in the lawsuit, the project should have been completed in less than six months. It appears that Defenders Northwest LLC had garage insurance, and the carrier stepped up to defend the alleged fraudsters, who also allegedly retaliated by attacking their victims and lawyers online.  This attack prompted another lawsuit against Brian Hall and Michele Hall – this time for defamation.

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Brian T. Hall and Michele A. Hall, owners of Defenders Northwest, LLC

The niche industry that focuses on the repair and restoration of vintage Land Rover Defenders is already highly controversial. On the higher end, it caters to affluent enthusiasts, some of whom want to turn the old mini tractors into street ready muscle trucks.  Other devotees spend equally as much but aim to restore their Defenders in a way that is consistent with their safari-type off road legacy. Then, there are the people that enjoy their Defender trucks on a budget, but still invest money and time to have an authentic off-road experience.  Ultimately, all these people spend a pretty penny to address their passion. Defender trucks with models such as Defender 90, Defender 110, and the more esoteric, Defender 130 were banned from being imported into the U.S. The new Defenders are different in design and seem to appeal to a different type of customer than the vintage models that are known for their Safari-oriented mission that leads to a cult following from real off-road enthusiasts. Restored vintage Land Rover Defenders are often sold for high dollars that rival Mercedes G-Wagons and fall into the hands of wealthy owners who never use them for their intended off-road adventures. The restored vehicles at times violate import laws and state and federal laws that address roadside safety standards. The legal complaint alleges that Defenders Northwest, LLC, Brian Hall and Michele Hall operate an illegal restoration business that caters to customers who pay extra to register banned vehicles by using industry loopholes. Illegal Defender vehicles are regularly confiscated by federal agents of the Department of Homeland Security and CPB (Customs and Border Protection) when violations of import laws are documented. It is not surprising that the restored Defender market elicits additional scrutiny from the Department of Homeland Security.

The Land Rover Defender was marketed in the United States from 1993 through 1997, but changes to DOT regulations for the 1998 model year required side-impact door beams and front-seat airbags. These are safety modifications that were not economically viable for Land Rover, given that Defender SUVs are very low-volume vehicles. Due to its ultra-rugged reputation and its resemblance to classic Land Rovers of yesteryear, the Defender remains in high demand today; it creates a strong market for imported vehicles, and parts, and ignites the passion of enthusiasts from all walks of life. The Land Rover Defender remained cosmetically similar throughout its production run, making it difficult for a tyro to tell a legal 1988 Defender apart from an illegal 1998 Defender with older VIN identifiers. Many restoration shops take advantage of these similarities to lure in customers for restoration projects that are fundamentally criminal.

Low mileage Defenders in excellent condition command truly high prices that rival those of Mercedes SUVs and other exotic trucks. The multi-million-dollar lawsuits against Defenders Northwest LLC and the Halls allege that there is a financial incentive for unscrupulous exporters and shops such as Defenders Northwest to swap VIN plates, leaving customers at substantial risk of having their vehicles confiscated.

The lesson from the Defenders Northwest and Brian and Michele Hall litigation is simple.  Take precautions when you entrust your car restoration project to even seemingly credible third parties.  Social media and internet marketing often obfuscates and conceals peoples’ true intentions and whitewash the reputation of shady businesses.  Hire investigators and draw up solid contracts to mitigate your risks if serious money is involved.

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