What do car buyers need to know about lemons?

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What are Lemon Laws?

Does your new car chug along at 30 mph when you put the pedal all the way to the floor? If the brakes don’t work, the rear door opens by itself, the driver’s seat wobbles, reverse gear doesn’t work, the engine won’t start or it dies for no reason – your car may be a lemon and you may have specific legal remedies under the Lemon Laws.

Every state has laws prescribing standards for when a vehicle manufacturer must replace or make a refund for a defective vehicle. Each state law has a specific name – in Florida it’s the Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act; in Arkansas, the New Motor Vehicle Quality Assurance Act;  in California, the Tanner Consumer Protection Act — but Lemon Law is the common nickname for all of them.

What kind of defect makes a vehicle a lemon?

State Lemon laws in general require that your vehicle has a recurring problem within a warranty period (which may be the manufacturer’s express warranty period, a statutorily-prescribed warranty period, or other warranty period depending on the law of your state) and that you make unsuccessful attempts to have the problem repaired. Each state law contains eligibility and notice requirements and provides specific remedies for consumers who purchase defective vehicles. Lemon Laws require that the defect substantially restrict the use, safety, or value of the vehicle, and that the problem continue despite reasonable efforts to repair it.

What kind of vehicle can be a lemon?

The details regarding what kinds of vehicles are within the scope of a Lemon Law vary significantly from state to state. Some laws apply to used as well as new vehicles; some apply to sales by private sellers as well as dealers; most, if not all, apply to leased as well as purchased vehicles; some extend coverage to motor homes or portions of motor homes; others include motorcycles. In most states, the vehicle must be self-propelled (not, for example, a trailer); in others the vehicle must be used for personal as opposed to business purposes; in most, the vehicle must be primarily designed to transport persons or property over the public highways; but in others, at least arguably, off-road and even farm vehicles are covered. A compilation of state lemon laws and a helpful summary of each law can be found at Carlemon.com.

How many attempted repairs does a lemon need?

All state Lemon Laws require that you make a reasonable attempt to have a defect repaired, and many have specific requirements concerning how many repair attempts you must make over a particular period of time for the car to qualify as a lemon. Typically, a Lemon-Law statute will require that the manufacturer be given three or four opportunities to repair a substantial defect, unless the defect involves safety, for which fewer attempts are typically required. Usually there will be notice requirements, at least for defects involving safety, and frequently it will be presumed that a substantial defect exists if the vehicle has been out of service by reason of repairs for a certain number of days during a prescribed period of time.

In Arkansas, for example, the manufacturer must be given three opportunities to repair a defect. But if the defect is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury, after the first attempt the consumer must give written notice to the manufacturer, after which the manufacturer has ten days to make a repair facility available and then ten days to make the repairs. The law in Hawaii is similar (except for the notice requirements), but goes on to presume that a defect exists if the vehicle has been out of service for thirty days during the term of the manufacturer’s express warranty, the period ending two years after the original delivery of the vehicle, or the first 24,000 miles of operation, whichever occurs first.

What is the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act?

There is also a federal Lemon Law (the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act) which may extend your remedies for a defective vehicle for up to four years after the manufacturer’s warranty has expired. Unlike state Lemon Laws that apply only to vehicles, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act applies to all tangible personal products covered by express or implied warranties —  including cars — used for personal, family, or household purposes. Magnuson-Moss also imposes strict requirements on manufacturers concerning full and conspicuous disclosure of express warranties.

Is legal representation a good idea?

If you think your vehicle may be a lemon, you should consult with an attorney to determine which law applies to your case and how to proceed. If you are successful in a claim under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act or some state laws, you may be entitled to an award of attorney fees based on the actual or reasonable time expended by your attorney. However, laws that provide for recovery of fees generally provide that you must pay the manufacturer’s attorney fees if you lose, or at least that you must do so if your claim is frivolous or made in bad faith.

Can Lemon-Law claims be filed online?

Short of hiring an attorney, there are online programs designed to help resolve Lemon Law claims. For example, BBB Auto Line is a voluntary Lemon-Law dispute resolution service operated by the Better Business Bureau. If your automaker is a BBB Auto Line participant, you can file your claim online. The Better Business Bureau will help you negotiate with the manufacturer and conduct an arbitration hearing, if necessary, at no cost to you. If your automaker is not a participant, the Better Business Bureau will forward your complaint to the company so that you can attempt to resolve it directly.

Are there written notice requirements?

Most, if not all, Lemon Laws require you to give written notice of defects to the manufacturer. Lemon-Law notice requirements are essential and they vary significantly from state to state. If you think you have a lemon, it’s a good idea to read your state Lemon Law carefully or talk to an attorney right away to determine what your notice obligations are.

What else needs to be in writing?

In some cases, you may not realize that your vehicle is a lemon until the applicable warranty period or mileage has been exceeded. But under most Lemon Laws, so long as you report the defect to the manufacturer and provide any required written notices within the applicable time or mileage limit, your right to repairs or a refund is preserved. Therefore, when you buy a car, you should document every repair carefully.

Put complaints in writing, and keep copies of everything. Make written records of conversations, including names, dates, and times. Be sure to get a copy of any warranty repair orders, even if there were no charges for the work. Make sure that the dealer or other repair facility accurately records your complaint on the repair order, the date and odometer reading are correct, and the defect is described exactly the same way at each repair visit.  Complete and accurate written records can make all the difference when it comes to proving that fate handed you a lemon.

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