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Understanding How Lemon Laws Can Help You

You've purchased a new car, but something isn't right. Whether it's an issue with the steering, brakes, or engine — you think you've bought a lemon. But just because you believe your new car is a lemon doesn't mean the law agrees.

Each state has its own lemon laws to deal with malfunctioning new motor vehicles beyond repair. Some states also protect the purchase of used cars and other categories of vehicles, like:

  • Motorcycles
  • SUVs
  • Demonstrator vehicles used by dealerships for test drives
  • The chassis portion of a motor home

Further, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that covers most consumer products with a written warranty — including vehicles.

The following is a general framework for determining if lemon law covers your malfunctioning vehicle. Learn whether your car qualifies as a lemon and how consumer protection laws protect you from being stuck with a defective vehicle.

See FindLaw's Lemon Law Basics section for more information and resources on lemon vehicles.

Does My Defective Vehicle Qualify as a Lemon?

Under the law of most states, a vehicle must meet the following criteria to qualify as a lemon:

  • Have a "substantial defect," covered by warranty, that occurs within a certain time after purchase
  • Continue to have the defect after a "reasonable number" of repair attempts

What constitutes a substantial defect or a reasonable number of attempts varies by state.

While most lemons are new vehicles under manufacturer warranty, some lemon laws also cover used vehicles.

Substantial Defects

A substantial defect is a vehicle nonconformity not caused by the owner's use of the car. It must prevent the safe use of the vehicle or significantly affect its operation or value. In most states, the defect must be covered under express warranty and affect a serious function or expectation of the car.

For example, faulty steering or brakes qualify as a substantial defect because they affect vehicle safety. In contrast, a loose radio knob does not qualify because it doesn't affect the car's significant function or expectation.

But what about the wide range of problems that fall somewhere between faulty brakes and loose hinges or radio knobs? The legal line between substantial and minor problems isn't always clear and differs by state. Issues like a poor paint job may not seem like a major problem to some. Still, many states have found these conditions to constitute a substantial defect.

Regardless of your state, the defect must occur within a certain time period or mileage on the odometer.

Reasonable Number of Repairs

You must give the dealer a reasonable number of attempts to repair a substantial defect before the law will declare your vehicle a lemon.

The exact number of attempts depends on the state, but most lemon laws consider four repair attempts reasonable. However, if the problem is a serious safety defect, this number may be as low as one attempt. Most states also have provisions that deem a vehicle a lemon if it is in the repair shop for a certain number of days per year to fix substantial defects.

Federal Lemon Law and Consumer Protection

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that protects the buyer of any product that comes with a written warranty and costs more than $25. While the act covers most consumer products under warranty — not just vehicles — it is often called the federal lemon law.

The act prevents manufacturers from creating grossly unfair warranties. It also allows a consumer bringing an action under the act to recover any attorney's fees incurred during the lawsuit.

If you feel the terms of your vehicle warranty are grossly unfair, consider contacting an attorney. An attorney can assess the terms of your warranty and advocate for your rights if necessary.

Used Car Lemon Law: Protection for Used Vehicles

While the above information speaks mostly to new car lemon law, some states also have a lemon law that covers used cars. Some states extend protections to cover vehicles purchased with a certain mileage or cars sold only once. Other states only extend protection if the original warranty covers the used car.

Investigate your state's lemon law to determine if it covers your used car.

Consumer Remedies: Reimbursement or Replacement Vehicle

If your vehicle meets the criteria for a substantial defect and a reasonable number of repair attempts, you qualify for lemon law protection. This means you have the right to either a refund of the full purchase price or a replacement vehicle.

You must first notify the manufacturer or dealership of the defect. This is still necessary even though they should already have notice because of the attempted repairs. If they do not offer a remedy to your satisfaction, you will likely need to go to arbitration before you can take legal action in court.

The Arbitration Process as an Alternative to a Lawsuit

Arbitration provides an alternative to civil court lawsuits. Some states offer arbitration programs specifically for lemon law issues.

Lemon law arbitration is a free, nonjudicial (outside of court) process. A panel or single mediator (arbitrator) analyzes both sides of the dispute and decides on an appropriate remedy. Potential remedies include a replacement vehicle or requiring the dealership to repurchase the vehicle from you at the purchase price.

It depends on state law, but the primary options for who conducts lemon law arbitration are:

If you can choose, the state program is preferable because it is less likely to be influenced by the manufacturer. Arbitration decisions in most states are binding for the manufacturer but appealable in court by the consumer. In other words, if you don't like the arbitrator's decision, you can sue the manufacturer in civil court. If you accept the arbitrator's ruling, the manufacturer cannot appeal.

While you can appeal the arbitration ruling, you should be as prepared as possible to come to a quick and inexpensive resolution. Keep in mind that attorney fees are costly, while lemon law arbitration is free. Consumers with detailed documentation of their claims often do better than those who appear at the arbitration with little evidence.

There are several pieces of documentation you should present at arbitration:

  • Receipts and service records demonstrating how often the car has received service for repairs
  • Contact attempts, like phone records indicating how often you contacted the dealer about the problem
  • Any ads or brochures the car manufacturer may have created touting the vehicle — arbitrators often hold manufacturers to the standards their advertising claims

Talk to an Attorney About a Lemon Law Claim

A lemon law claim can get overwhelming. While most car buyers can resolve a lemon issue on their own, some situations benefit from professional legal help. There are a few scenarios where you may want to work with a lemon law attorney:

  • The vehicle manufacturer or dealership is being uncooperative with repairs or remedies.
  • The manufacturer or dealer is disputing warranty coverage for the defects or repairs.
  • A car dealer did not disclose a vehicle you purchased was a lemon buyback.
  • You wish to appeal an arbitration decision.

Remember that lemon laws have strict time and mileage limits. If you're approaching these limits and still have vehicle issues, talking to an attorney soon is crucial. You don't want to miss the deadline to pursue legal action.

Contact a lemon law lawyer in your area to learn more. An expert attorney can evaluate if you have a lemon law case and fight for a just remedy for your lemon vehicle.

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