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Barrister Bits - Understanding the "Lemon Law"

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Understanding the "Lemon Law"

by Debra A. Newby

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Dear Debra:

I bought a brand new pickup from a Bay Area Dealership about six months ago. My new truck has been in the shop more than it has been on the road. I think I bought a “lemon”. What are my legal options?  

Signed: Broken-down-Barbara

Dear Barbara:

How frustrating! After all, the cost of a new vehicle (or even a pre-owned certified vehicle) can equal the cost of a small (or even medium-size) home in parts of our beautiful country! Consumers do have certain legal rights (thank you, Ralph Nader) when it comes to vehicles that are purchased from a car dealership. You may be out of luck if you purchased your car from a private party, hence the axiom “Buyer Beware”. 

First, some background for my readers who love a short historical perspective. In 1970, the California Legislature enacted the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, which placed responsibilities on manufacturers to repurchase or replace faulty products that could not be fixed after a “reasonable number” of repairs. This Act doesn’t just apply to cars, but also to other consumer transactions.   

Within the complex language of this Act, there are presumptive guidelines which are instructive. The faulty condition must arise during the first 18 months of delivery of the vehicle, or within the first 18,000 miles, whichever occurs first. Once that timeline is established, then you must answer “Yes” to one of the following three (3) questions:  

  1. Has the manufacturer or its agents (i.e. the car dealership) made two or more attempts to repair a warranty problem that results in problem that can cause death or serious bodily injury if the car is driven?
  2. Has the manufacturer or the dealership made four (4) or more attempts to repair the same warranty problem? OR
  3. Has your truck been out of service for more than thirty (30) days while being repaired for the warranty problem? 

If you answer “Yes” to just one of these questions, then you may have a claim under the “Lemon Law”. Be aware that the “Lemon Law” is a burden- shifting tool, meaning that once you claim that your vehicle is a lemon, the burden shifts to the manufacturer or dealer to prove it is not. Educate yourself about the general principles of the Lemon Law. Check out the website of our Attorney General, Kamala Harris, who has a great overview of the law (and a pdf file you can download with contact numbers for resources) https://oag.ca.gov/consumers/general/cars

Don’t be surprised if the dealership and/or the manufacturer puts up a fight. Much is at stake here, for if you prevail and your vehicle is deemed a “lemon”, you are entitled to either have your vehicle replaced or a refund of your purchase price, plus other incidental costs, such as sales and use tax, license, registration, towing, and rental car costs. 

Another option is to contact the New Motor Vehicle Board, which operates a Consumer Mediation Services Program. Call (916) 445-1888. While researching this issue, I actually called the Mediation Services Program and talked to a very nice man who has worked there for quite some time. He informs me that the Mediation Program is free. You must first file a claim electronically (nmvb.ca.gov). Once the claim is opened, a mediator is assigned to your claim within 2-3 days. The Mediator then gathers all the necessary documents, electronically sends it to the Manufacturer or Dealership, and they have ten days to respond. The Program is under the auspices of the DMV. The Mediation is not binding, meaning that if you don’t like the results of the Mediation, you need not agree (but then your last option is arbitration, which is binding). 

Good luck! Hope I have pointed you in the right direction, so you can get back on the road soon and create new adventures.


 

Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 34 years. She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email (debra@newbylawoffice.com), phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202).