Pub. 2 2022 Issue 2

14 A VISIT WITH JIM SEWELL GENERAL COUNSEL TO MONTANA AUTOMOBILE DEALERS ASSOCIATION R. J. “Jim” Sewell, Jr., a Deer Lodge native and fifth-generation Montanan, graduated from Carroll College in 1968 and served in the U.S. Navy in 1968 and 1969. He joined Smith Law Firm, P.C., in the private practice of law upon receiving his law degree from the University of Montana in June 1971 and acquired the firm in 1992. He began his automobile dealers’ legal work in the late 1970s and has been general counsel to the Montana Automobile Dealers Association since 2004. He was elected to the National Association of Dealer Counsel (NADC) board of directors in April 2015 and served as a board member for six years. In addition to the NADC, Sewell is a member of the State Bar of Montana and the National Association of Dealer Counsel. He is admitted to practice before the state and federal courts of Montana, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. Sewell became “of counsel” to Smith Law Firm, P.C., Oct. 1, 2015, when Craig D. Charlton acquired the firm. He continues to serve as general counsel to Montana Automobile Dealers Association and represents many of Montana’s automobile dealers. MTADA recently interviewed Jim about the dealership industry in Montana as it relates to state laws. Why are dealer laws important? Individual dealers have no economic power whatsoever over the manufacturers. Robust national protection was never developed even though there is a seldom-used national dealer day in court law. Since the 1930s or 1940s and after the war, the manufacturers have been very heavy-handed in doing business with dealers. They get away with it because all the cards are in their hands. The only way to give dealers a modicum of protection is to have laws that protect them. All the states have developed more and more statutes to deal with bad conduct by the OEMs. The first laws to protect dealers may have been passed as late as 1946 or 1947. Some state laws are stricter than others, but they are all based on a similar framework. How have dealer laws developed over the years? Have they become more or less effective about protecting dealers? They are much more effective than when I started in the late 1970s. However, dealers still don’t have equal bargaining power because OEMs always develop new tactics. It’s like putting your finger in the dike and having a leak spring somewhere else. If regulations stop inappropriate conduct in one area, OEMs figure out another way. Why should dealers be engaged in the association and ongoing legislative efforts? If you want your children and grandchildren to be dealers, you need to participate in keeping the OEMs in check. Dealers who act by themselves are largely ineffective in dealing with the OEMs. That means dealers have to act as a body to protect themselves. They need a concerted group effort to right the wrongs. What’s the most notable change to MTADA dealer law starting in 2005 and ending with the 2021 session? I think the biggest change is in warranty reimbursement laws, processes and procedures. Dealers now get paid for OEM warranty work on the same terms they do repair work for you and me. That’s the most important thing that’s happened in the 40 years I’ve been doing this. What other changes are notable? Montana’s second most important legislation was a data bill that followed Arizona’s lead and NADA’s suggestions. All the dealers use a computer system for their books and records. When you walk into a dealership, the dealer takes