New Jersey car dealers who sell lemons online can be held liable for fraud, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The court said a 1970 Corvette convertible advertised in "good" condition on eBay by a Montville car dealer and pumpkin farmer and sold to a Missourian was a "textbook" case of what is covered by the state's Consumer Fraud Act. The unanimous decision determined the act, which in part covers merchandise advertised in print and over the airwaves, also extends to items sold online. "We are called on to determine whether the Consumer Fraud Act's reach extends far enough to grasp that transaction," wrote Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, who noted Richard Conklin of Montville "had engaged in unconscionable commercial practices in connection with the advertisement and sale of merchandise." When Lyle Real of O'Fallon, Mo., got the 1970 Chevrolet Corvette for which he paid $13,651 on eBay, he noticed the car was not in "good" condition as advertised, the decision stated. In fact, the decision continued, the car wasn't even in good enough shape to drive in Missouri because its frame, rusted halfway through, would not have passed inspection. And when Real turned the ignition key there was a "large hesitation" when he tried to accelerate, it stated. When Conklin refused Real's offer to return the car, the decision continued, Real spent more than $40,000 to fix it up so it would run. Because of the court's decision, Real will now receive the $62,447 settlement he was awarded in the original trial. Yesterday's decision overturned a state appeals court ruling that said the consumer protection law did not apply to Conklin because he was only a "casual seller" of hot rods and historic vehicles. Conklin, who denied during the trial that he was a car dealer, also makes custom roadster wheels for his company, Radir Wheels Inc., the decision says. Conklin's lawyer, Clifford Weininger, said he was "surprised" by the court's decision, which may lead to more costly settlements for retailers. "The decision now applies to anybody who sells anything in the state of New Jersey," Weininger said. "Whether it's on eBay, in garage sales, it's now subject to the Consumer Fraud Act which means treble damages and legal fees." Peter Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, said while the Consumer Fraud Act was an "old law" that had not "been updated to address the Internet," dealers should still be "forthcoming and honest about the product." "The industry's view of online sales, the obligations to disclose and the advertisement requirements online are pretty much the same as any other media," he said. "Online's not that different from the newspaper or broadcast media." Appleton said advertising online helps sell cars but most people want to get a feel for the car before they put down the money. "Ten years ago, there was a lot of speculation that auto sales would be almost exclusively online," he said. "Consumers want to be able to shop and compare online but eventually they want to be in a dealership test-driving cars." The decision also affects car dealers who post ads on independently owned sites such as the Basking Ridge-based iBidMotors.com. Brian Kelley, president of iBid, said he's never had a problem with dealerships falsely advertising on the site, but "constantly" hears about lawsuits over cars misrepresented online. "People take pictures, but a car might look great from the outside and be completely rusted underneath," Kelley said. Real's lawyer, Michael Halbfish, said the decision was "important." "It closes a loophole where a person can't go about running a business and claiming that they are acting independently," he said. "Now people are being held responsible when they commit fraud."