Can I Sue Specific Car Brands for Defective Engines?
By Robert Rafii, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Steven J. Ellison, Esq. | Last reviewed April 10, 2023
This article has been written and reviewed for legal accuracy, clarity, and style by FindLaw’s team of legal writers and attorneys and in accordance with our editorial standards.
The last updated date refers to the last time this article was reviewed by FindLaw or one of our contributing authors. We make every effort to keep our articles updated. For information regarding a specific legal issue affecting you, please contact an attorney in your area.
Yes, you can sue car manufacturers for defective parts, including engines that don't work right.
Often, the government or the manufacturer itself might be a step ahead of you. If they discover a problem with the car engine or other part of the vehicle's design, they'll do a safety recall voluntarily.
But what if you are injured before the problem with the car could be fixed, or what if the defective engine leaves you stranded on the road?
In these situations, you may either be entitled to a refund or replacement under the defective car laws of your state (known as lemon laws) or under product liability and warranty claims. If you are injured, you may have personal injury claims against the manufacturer.
If you want to sue a car brand for a defective engine, a product liability attorney or lemon law lawyer may be able to help.
A recall is when a car brand or the government decides that a car or its parts create a safety risk for the general public. If the manufacturer itself hasn't already recalled the car on their own, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will step in and force the recall.
This means that depending on your state, either the manufacturer or the dealership where you bought your motor vehicle will send you a postcard, which by law will have:
- the description of the problem (e.g. car engine defect); and
- a description of symptoms that warn the problem may exist (e.g. strange sounds); and
- the risks created by the defect, such as engine shut-off; and
- the proposed solution (remedy), usually involving the repair or replacement of the defect; and
- instructions on how to obtain the remedy (e.g. mechanic or dealership location)
An automotive recall is the first step for an auto manufacturer to try and address product defects. Vehicle defects like faulty airbags and broken seat belts can usually be cured after a visit to the mechanic. But sometimes, something like a defective engine might be almost impossible to repair.
If you have a defective vehicle that just won't budge no matter how hard the mechanic tries to get it fixed, it's a lemon. A lemon is a kind of car that's beyond saving — no recall, no matter how extensive, will be enough to get it repaired.
Most states have lemon laws that protect your purchase of new cars only. A small handful of states, including New York, extend lemon laws to used cars as well, but with stricter guidelines.
While state laws vary on what makes a car a lemon, in general the vehicle must:
- have a substantial (material) defect,
- that was present within a specified range of time from purchase,
- which makes the car unsafe to drive, and
- it can't be reasonably repaired
Some examples of lemons include cars with defective engines, faulty steering wheels, or irreparable brake mechanisms.
If a dealership or manufacturer refuses to refund or replace a defective vehicle that has been determined to be a lemon, you can sue under your state's lemon laws to get your money back.
Alongside local state lemon laws, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act ensures that manufacturers, including carmakers, honor their warranties for lemon cases. If you sue under a product liability claim relating to the manufacturer's warranty and you win, this federal law will force the defendant to pay your attorney's fees.
Product Liability Laws
In every state, defective product laws place strict liability on parts manufacturers, including automakers, for design defects and manufacturing defects in their cars. This means they are responsible to you even if defects in their cars didn't arise out of their negligence or carelessness.
You can sue a car brand by showing:
- The car was defective out the door (at the time of purchase)
- You did not misuse the car or otherwise operate it incorrectly
- The defect caused damage to you, such as personal injuries from a car accident
Under product liability law, a car must perform or meet a standard for which it is intended. That means you can reasonably expect that will be safely drivable, and that you won't have problems operating its steering wheel, brakes, mirrors, and so on.
In general, state laws recognize three different kinds of warranties:
- express warranty; and
- implied warranty of merchantability; and
- implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose
An express warranty from a manufacturer promises that the will perform for a certain number of miles or over a specified period. The warranty contract will state how long you have to bring in the car for repairs at no cost as long as you didn't cause the defect yourself.
- As an aside, sometimes a car manufacturer might adjust its own (express) warranty policy to allow for the repair of a problem but only if a consumer complains on their own. This is informally known as a secret warranty — and some states prohibit a carmaker from keeping it a secret, instead requiring that a recall be publicly announced.
The implied warranty of merchantability is the legal theory that a car is fit for the purpose it's sold. In other words, the automaker is liable for design, manufacturing, or labeling defects that defeat that purpose.
Finally, the implied warranty of fitness requires that a vehicle be appropriate for its understood or promised use even if it's not defective. For example, if the car brand or dealership tells you that you can drive it over dirt roads, but it turns out that the car breaks down the moment the pavement ends, you can sue.
Personal Injury Laws & Recovery
As stated earlier, manufacturers are strictly liable for your personal injuries that result from a car's defects. This means that you don't have to show they were negligent in order to win. However, you can still sue for negligence as well.
Your negligence lawsuit will state:
- The automaker had a duty to make a reasonably safe car for you to drive;
- They breached that duty by failing to repair or recall a defective part;
- You were injured as a result of that defect; and
- You suffered damages, such as medical expenses.
For example, if a malfunctioning electrical component in your car causes you to get into an accident and you suffer broken bones, your lawsuit for negligence will pin the blame on the manufacturer's failure to eliminate the electrical defect that caused the accident and your injuries.
A product liability or negligence case will allow you to recover injury damages:
- Economic damages, including lost income (past and future), medical bills, and the value of your vehicle
- Non-economic damages, including pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life
In cases where an automaker acts with gross disregard for a defect that they're aware of but unwilling to address, a court may also award you punitive damages to punish the defendant for its egregious and unfair behavior.
A Lawyer Can Help Sue Car Makers
If you want to sue a car brand for a defective engine or other problem part, look to these two types of lawyers to help:
These kinds of legal professionals can sometimes give you a free case evaluation to see whether you have a strong car defect case. A product liability or lemon law lawyer can also give you legal advice about federal laws and consumer protection rules in your state regarding the duties of vehicle manufacturers.
Because most states have a statute of limitations on defect claims, you may have a limited time to bring your case to court. Contact a lawyer today before that period expires.
Contact a qualified attorney to help you navigate the challenges presented by litigation.