It can be a frustrating experience to buy a new car and discover that it is a lemon (cars with many frustrating issues with them). Sadly, many consumers have this experience as statistics show that approximately 1% of all new cars sold are lemons.
Almost all states have enacted “lemon laws” to help those who have purchased cars that turn out to be lemons.While technically, the term “lemon” could apply to a variety of products, these laws apply primarily to motor vehicles of all types, i.e., automobiles, motorcycles, and trucks.
A lemon law is a state law that requires the manufacturer or seller of a defective item, usually a motor vehicle of some kind, to either repair it, replace it, or refund the cost of the vehicle to the person who purchased it. The dealer or the manufacturer itself should provide the remedy.
Most states now have lemon laws that define which vehicles qualify as “lemons,” and the remedies that are available to consumers.
Almost all state lemon laws require the manufacturer or retail dealer of a vehicle with a substantial defect to repair the defect at their own expense. If the defect cannot be repaired in four attempts, two attempts for a safety defect, or if the vehicle is out of service for 30 days within the first 12,000 to 18,000 miles, the manufacturer must replace the new vehicle, or provide a full refund of the purchase price, including any additional taxes, fees or other additional charges that were paid.
An example is the lemon law in California. It provides that a new vehicle can be presumed to be a lemon within 18 months of the vehicle’s delivery to the buyer, or before the clocking of 18,000 miles on the odometer, if one of the following is true:
- Two or more attempts to repair a warranty problem that could lead to serious injury or death have been made by the manufacturer; or
- The manufacturer has tried to repair the same warranty defect at least 4 times; or
- The car has been out of service for 30 days or more for repair of a warranty defect; and
- The vehicle’s defects were not caused by abuse of the vehicle by the owner.
If a person’s vehicle meets the definition of a lemon, the manufacturer must offer one of two possible remedies:
- Replace the vehicle with a new one; or
- Refund the vehicle’s purchase price in full.
If the manufacturer refuses to offer either of the lemon law remedies or delays in offering them, the owner can:
- Request arbitration to resolve the problem; or
- Hire a lemon law attorney in California.
California’s lemon law also works for used cars purchased from dealers and not private parties.
What Qualifies As an Automotive Lemon?
In order for a vehicle to be considered a lemon, two criteria must be met:
- The car must have a substantial defect that shows itself within a certain time after the purchase of the car, usually within one or two years, or 12 to 24 months, of ownership. This would mean that after the period of time prescribed by the state’s lemon law, the lemon law remedies are no longer available;
- The car must continue to have this defect even after the owner has made reasonable attempts to repair it.
In most states, lemon laws only apply to new cars but some states have comparable laws for used cars.
What Is a Substantial Defect?
A car has a defect that qualifies as substantial, if there is something wrong with the car that impairs the car’s use, safety, or value. For example, defective brakes or headlights are a substantial defect. On the other hand, loose knobs on the radio, a flaw in the upholstery and similar issues that can be easily fixed with a simple repair are not substantial defects.
Substantial defects are defects which make it impossible to operate the car or make it unsafe to do so. The exact definition of “substantial defect” varies in each state. Telling the difference between substantial defects and minor defects can sometimes be challenging. Problems that seem minor, such as a problem with a paint job or offensive odors in the car, have been found to be substantial.
As noted above, all lemon laws require that the substantial defect show itself within a certain period of time after the purchase of the car, or the manufacturer must replace the vehicle or provide a full refund of the purchase price, including any additional fees, taxes and other charges.
It is important to keep in mind that lemon laws are not the only available remedy for a defective vehicle. Lemon laws offer remedies for “substantial defects” in new vehicles. However, if a person is seriously injured in an accident caused by a defective vehicle, they can sue the manufacturer and distributor of the vehicle on a theory of strict product liability. In a lawsuit for strict product liability, a person can recover compensatory damages for injuries and property damage that they suffer because of a defect in a product.
The defect does not have to be “substantial”. It is sufficient if the defect is the cause of an accident. The defect might be a manufacturing, design or marketing defect. The victim must only prove that the defect caused an accident and that the person sustained injury or property damage.
Or, if the negligence of a manufacturer or distributor of a vehicle leads to an accident in which a person is injured or their property damages, they could possibly file a lawsuit based on a theory of negligence. This is not foreclosed by lemon laws.
If a car is new, an action for breach of warranty might also be an option if circumstances make the lemon law approach unavailable to the buyer of a vehicle, whether used or new.
How Do I Know if I Have Made Reasonable Attempts to Repair My Car?
Even if a person’s car has a substantial defect, it is not a lemon unless the defect remains even after the owner has made reasonable attempts to get it repaired. This usually means that the owner must make a certain number of attempts to repair the defect.
Some common rules regarding reasonable repair attempts include the following:
- For serious safety defects, such as those involving the brakes or the steering mechanism, one repair attempt is reasonable;
- For defects that are not serious, an owner should seek three to four attempts at repair, although again, this number can vary by state;
- If the car is in a repair shop for a certain number of days in one year, usually 30 days, it may meet the state law definition of a lemon, regardless of the number of repair attempts.
Again, the exact law in the state in which the owner lives should be consulted.
It is important for the owner of a lemon to document their purchase of the car, the appearance of the defect and their efforts to get the car repaired.
Specifically, it is important for a lemon owner to document their experience in some detail. The owner should keep the original purchase contract in a place where it can be easily retrieved. Then the owner of a lemon wants to maintain a written record in whatever form, a notebook or a computer document file, where they write down the necessary information to prove their lemon law case, if that becomes necessary.
The important information to record in notes is as follows:
- Date of Purchase: The date when the vehicle was purchased;
- First Experience of the Problem: The date and time when the owner first experienced the problem with the vehicle. Also, the owner should record exactly what happened to bring the defect to their attention. The owner should further record what they thought the problem was, and the circumstances in which it made itself known.
- Subsequent Occurrences: Then the owner should record the same information for subsequent occurrences of the same problem, as well as for any new problems that reveal themselves;
- Efforts to Fix the Problem: The owner should document the actions they took to fix the problem and what the result was. They should document whether the same problem happened more than once before they took action to address it;
- Notifications and communications: The owner should record the date, time, and method of communicating with, or receiving communications from, the manufacturer, dealer, and others regarding the car, its defect and repair efforts;
- Save Evidence: The owner should keep copies of any communications from or to the manufacturer, dealer, or others regarding the problem with the car. Among the records that should be kept would be all text messages, emails, social media messages, voicemail messages, and other communications.
- If some party involved leaves a phone message, this can be noted in the records. One could make copies of phone bills showing relevant phone numbers called with the date, time and duration of the call. Topics discussed should be noted. An owner can usually find cell phone records online;
- Service and Repair Records: The owner should keep the records from every service or repair related to the problem. And when they take the vehicle into the dealer for repair, they should ask for a written estimate and keep the estimate in their case file.
- Among the records that should be kept would be invoices, notifications, and anything showing the length of time the car was in the shop each time it was there, why it was there and what was done to the vehicle. Because the sheer number and length of time the car spends in the repair shop can determine whether the car is a lemon, this is important evidence.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
Lemon laws can be complicated. It can be challenging to define the terms, such as “substantial defect” and “reasonable attempt.” The definitions vary in different states. And manufacturers are going to be reluctant to refund the full purchase price or replace the car with another one.
An experienced auto lawyer can inform you about the lemon law in your state and can help you get a refund for your lemon or a replacement car. It will speed up resolution of the problem if you have a lawyer on your side.
If you have been injured in an accident that may have been caused by a defect in a vehicle, then you want to consult a personal injury lawyer.