Is Your Car a Lemon? Here’s How to Use the Laws Designed to Protect You

Man leaning against car with hood open, making a call.
Photo by pathdoc / Shutterstock.com

Driving a late-model car that constantly needs to be repaired can leave a sour taste in your mouth, but it’s often possible to find relief under your state’s lemon law.

“If you have a vehicle new or used that comes with a manufacturer’s warranty and the dealership takes too many tries to fix a problem, or you have had too many problems, you are entitled to compensation from the manufacturer,” said Robert Silverman, founding partner of the law firm of Kimmel & Silverman.

No one wants to purchase a car that spends most of its time in the repair shop. Depending on the severity of the case, state lemon laws may require manufacturers to buy back defective cars, replace them or provide the owner with monetary compensation. Typically, attorneys take such cases at no cost to the car owner, said Silverman, whose firm specializes in lemon law issues.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have lemon laws. The federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act provides that consumers who win their cases under state lemon laws are entitled to have their legal fees paid by the manufacturers.

“Good attorneys who know what they’re doing always get the fees paid by the manufacturer,” said Silverman.

Read your state lemon law

Lemon laws vary in the protections they offer, said Silverman. For example, under Pennsylvania’s lemon law, the manufacturer must repair any defect that substantially impairs the use, value or safety of the vehicle and that occurs and is reported within a year after delivery, within 12,000 miles of use or the end of the manufacturer’s warranty, whichever comes first.

In New Jersey, the law protects vehicles against serious warranty defects the dealer can’t repair that are first reported within two years of the delivery date or 24,000 miles, whichever comes first. You can learn about the protections offered by your state’s lemon law by checking with your local consumer protection agency or your state attorney general’s office.

Lauren Fix, an automotive expert and analyst based in Lancaster, New York, said state lemon laws typically don’t apply until a manufacturer has attempted to repair a problem several times and hasn’t provided a lasting solution for the consumer. Sometimes even an honest and experienced mechanic is unable to correct a mechanical defect.

The state law may not specify how many visits to the repair shop must be made before the consumer is compensated. For example, California’s lemon law says only that a “reasonable” number of attempts must be made.

Know your rights

While lemon laws offer broad protections, many consumers are unaware of them, said Los Angeles attorney Jessica Anvar.

“There are thousands of people out there with defective vehicles who don’t know they have rights, which means they are leaving remedies on the table,” she said.

While you might expect automakers to resist efforts by consumers to get help under lemon laws, the opposite is true, Anvar added. Typically they’re cooperative. That’s because they understand the value of satisfied buyers. They want customers to come back to buy another vehicle.

“Manufacturers are, for the most part, consumer-friendly,” she said. “They want to create a repeat customer base.”

Not every case gets a quick settlement, however. Sometimes a lawsuit must be filed. It’s important to take action while a defective car still is under warranty, Anvar said. “The manufacturer is on the hook for a limited period of time.”

Automobile warranties typically cover a broad range of problems, from defective power trains to faulty electrical systems, she said.

Very minor problems, such as having a radio speaker that crackles, typically aren’t covered under state lemon laws, Silverman said. That’s because lawmakers don’t want to force car manufacturers to buy back cars “for trifling or insignificant concerns.”

Keep your repair records

A key thing to remember is that reimbursements are based on the number of times the car owner takes the vehicle in for repairs and the time that the vehicle is out of service. That’s why it’s important to save repair records.

“That is the first thing we ask for when qualifying potential clients,” Anvar said. “If they don’t have them, that is their first bit of homework: Please go back and obtain your repair tickets.”

The receipts you collect will create a paper trail that establishes the repair problem. Silverman recommends that consumers also keep their own repair records, since repair shops don’t always correctly record the purpose of visits.

It’s possible for a car to have a poor repair record and still not qualify for remedies under state lemon laws, Fix said. That’s because the laws are written to address recurring problems that aren’t repaired.

Bruce Smith, who lives in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, contacted Silverman’s law firm in the spring of 2017 after repeated unsuccessful attempts to repair the transmission of his 2016 compact vehicle. It slipped out of gear when he attempted to back into his driveway, he said. He took his car to the dealership about 10 times for the same problem, he added.

“The more mileage I put on it, the worse it got,” he recalled. “It wasn’t only my driveway, it would happen on the street sometimes too.” The manufacturer settled the case, and the car was repurchased, Smith said.

Retiree Ann Guiliani, another Silverman client, said she had her 2015 sedan repurchased by the manufacturer after a dozen or more attempts to find out why it often would not start. She used the money to buy another vehicle.

“I’m satisfied,” she said. “I’ve got my car and I can go anywhere I want, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the lemon law.”

Find a good lawyer

Typically, consumers are required to notify the manufacturer of the vehicle’s defect in order to receive compensation under lemon laws. If they aren’t offered a settlement that meets their needs, they may be required to go through an arbitration process before taking the case to court.

Silverman recommends seeking legal help to guide you through the proces. He says you should be careful about whom you retain to represent you, however. That’s because not all attorneys are equally familiar with consumer rights under state lemon laws.

You’re more likely to win compensation from an auto manufacturer if you’re represented by competent, experienced counsel who is willing to take the case to court, he added. “You ought to look for years of experience and a track record of helping people and of taking cases to trial.”

Have you ever ended up with a lemon? What did you do? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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