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Manufacturer Warranty Repairs: Secret Warranties, Recalls, and Lemons

Buying a new car is a significant purchase for most consumers. Any vehicle you buy should be safe to drive and free from defects and malfunctions. However, some vehicles hit the market with hidden flaws that affect their performance, safety, and reliability.

Some consumers are unaware there are potential remedies if a newly purchased vehicle is not mechanically sound. Automotive manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the quality and safety of their vehicles. Some situations warrant a free repair or even a replacement vehicle.

Three protections that can prevent car buyers from absorbing repair expenses or driving a dangerous vehicle are:

  • Car secret warranties
  • Manufacturer recalls
  • Car lemon laws

For more information and tips for buying a vehicle, see FindLaw's sections on Buying a Car and Product Warranties and Returns.

How To Know if Your Car Has a Secret Warranty

Car manufacturers occasionally discover a design defect in vehicles already on the market. In such cases, the manufacturer issues a notice to all dealerships that they are to repair the defect at no cost to the car owners. This is referred to as a secret warranty but is sometimes called a goodwill program, policy adjustment, or service campaign.

However, some dealerships don't publish secret warranty notices and fail to inform car owners about the defects. These dealerships typically won't perform the necessary repairs unless the car owners complain about the mechanical defect. While inconvenient, this isn't illegal in most states.

However, some states require dealerships to notify car owners of secret warranties: These states include:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Maryland
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

If you don't live in one of the states above, you can still find out if your vehicle has a secret warranty notice. Organizations like the Center for Auto Safety post information on safety defects and other recalls.

You can also find technical service bulletins for vehicle defects on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website. Under federal law, manufacturers must provide all defect notices to the NHTSA.

If you find a bulletin about a repair to your vehicle, take a copy to the dealership and ask for the necessary repairs.

New Cars, Used Cars, and Warranty Laws

Other warranty laws besides secret warranties may require the dealer or manufacturer to cover the cost of a necessary vehicle repair. Still, warranty coverage for a vehicle (including what components and systems it covers) isn't always clear or easy to understand. There are two primary types of warranties that apply to vehicle sales:

  • An Express Warranty: A verbal or written guarantee a product will meet a certain level of quality and reliability
  • Implied Warranty: An assumed base level of consumer protection. It automatically covers most consumer products

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that covers most consumer products with an express, written warranty. The act requires companies to clearly disclose warranty terms before the sale. Companies also must designate the warranty as either full or limited and clarify the extent of coverage. This means the dealer must provide you with all warranty details, including its duration and whether it is transferable to subsequent owners.

The act also protects the consumer's right to choose who services their product or, in this context — performs the vehicle repair. In most cases, manufacturers or dealerships cannot require you to use an authorized mechanic or parts provider to maintain your warranty coverage.

Some warranties also protect used cars. In some situations, a manufacturer's certified pre-owned (CPO) warranty may cover your used vehicle purchase. If so, the warranty must clearly state the specific terms and coverage.

Not all express warranties are in writing. Sometimes, they are implied through advertised performance promises. Keep copies of your vehicle's advertising and promotional materials. If it fails to perform as implied, you may have the right to remedy under express warranty terms.

An implied warranty offers automatic, basic protection and applies to most vehicle sales. An implied warranty means a product should work as expected for a reasonable period of time. This means that an implied warranty ensures your vehicle should be:

  • Free from major defects
  • Safe to drive
  • Able to perform reliably under typical circumstances

If a dealership refuses to honor warranty terms or denies a warranty claim, consider contacting an attorney. You can also make a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and your state's attorney general's office.

Manufacturer Safety Recalls

Some repairs are so important that car manufacturers publicize them either online or by sending notices directly to the car owners. These are known as recalls and can cause negative publicity for the manufacturer.

However, recalls are vital — they notify consumers about dangerous defects. If you receive a recall notice, call a mechanic immediately to schedule the repair. The manufacturer pays for the repair, so the repair shop should perform the fix at no cost to you.

When Does Lemon Law Apply to My New Vehicle?

Sometimes, a new motor vehicle has recurring issues, and no amount of repairs makes it function properly. If the vehicle meets certain criteria and is still under its original warranty, the law classifies it as a lemon.

It varies by state, but the law considers a car a lemon if it has a substantial mechanical defect that is not resolved after four repair attempts. Some states will also deem a vehicle a lemon if it was out of use for 30 days during the first 12,000 miles of use.

State and federal laws govern lemon vehicles. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act protects most consumer products with a written warranty, including defective vehicles. Additionally, each state has its own lemon law that specifies:

  • What constitutes a substantial defect
  • What is a reasonable number of attempts at repairing the issue

Consumers who purchase lemons have the right to a replacement vehicle or a full refund of the purchase price, including taxes and registration fees.

Car owners typically have to prove they've purchased a lemon before a car dealer will agree to exchange the car for a working model. For this reason, keep detailed records of all mechanical failures and repairs, including:

  • The date you discovered and reported the vehicle failure
  • Mileage at the time of the failure
  • List of attempted repairs
  • Copies of all repair bills

Some states offer lemon law arbitration programs if a car owner and dealer or manufacturer cannot agree on a remedy. Arbitration is a faster, less formal alternative to traditional court proceedings. During arbitration, a neutral third party (the arbitrator) hears both sides and makes a decision.

You can also file a complaint against the dealership or manufacturer with your state's consumer protection agency or attorney general.

If arbitration is unsuccessful or your state does not offer an arbitration program, a local attorney specializing in lemon law can help you.

Which States Have the Strictest Lemon Laws?

Each state structures its lemon law differently, with various criteria and how strong protections for consumers are. The Center for Auto Safety ranks each state's lemon law, with New Jersey and Washington having the most robust lemon laws for consumers. Illinois holds the lowest position with the least comprehensive consumer protections.

Need Help With a Vehicle Defect? Talk to an Attorney

Most consumers are able to resolve issues with a vehicle repair on their own. But some situations necessitate professional help. If a dealer or manufacturer is being uncooperative, or you are unable to secure an appropriate remedy for your malfunctioning vehicle, you may want to talk to an experienced consumer protection attorney.

An attorney in your area can advocate for your rights under consumer protection laws. They will assess your situation, evidence, and state and federal law and recommend the next steps. Contact a local attorney to learn more.

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