What is a “lemon”? In this context, a lemon is a defective car. Maybe you only bought it a few months back but it’s already needed numerous repairs for the same problem. Or perhaps it’s just needed numerous repairs period. Things can be more complicated with person-to-person used car sales, but if you bought the car from a dealer then you may have been handed a lemon.
Fortunately, there are “lemon laws” in place which are intended to protect consumers from these sorts of problems. And there are plenty of attorneys out there willing to offer free services (though always check for hidden or conditional costs) because they’re confident they can win adequate payment as part of the settlement.
Federal Lemon Law
What are those lemon laws? First, there’s a federal warranty law, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. It requires that if a car is under full warranty, the dealer must (at a minimum) repair the product within a reasonable time and without charge. Of the the product/component contains defect or malfunction the consumer must be permitted to elect either a refund or replacement (after a reasonable number of repair attempts have been made). Also, there are various clauses which keep the dealer from changing the warranty.
State Lemon Laws
Then, every state has a lemon law of some sort which explains what a dealer is legally obligated to fix and when you may sue for breach of contract/replacement. These laws are probably the ones you’d be using if you were concerned you had a lemon and decided to go to court.. CarLemon.com has a list of the state laws. They’re a bit complicated, but some states include guides to the law.
For example, this is the guide to Maryland’s lemon laws.
If there is a problem with a new car during the warranty period, the dealer or the manufacturer must be given an opportunity to repair the defect. Also, the consumer must send a written notice of the defect to the manufacturer by certified mail, return receipt requested, during the warranty period. The manufacturer or dealer must correct the defect, at no charge to the consumer, within 30 days after receiving notice of the defect. If the car is returned to the dealer four times to repair the same defect or if it is out of service for more than a total of 20 days because of defects, the dealer must notify the manufacturer of the defect and send a copy of the notice to the Motor Vehicle Administration.
If the dealer or manufacturer is unable to repair the consumer’s car after a reasonable number of attempts (as described above), the manufacturer is required to do one of two things. At the consumer’s option, the manufacturer must either: (1) Replace the car with another that is acceptable to the consumer; or (2) Accept return of the car and refund the full purchase price, less a reasonable allowance for the use of the vehicle.
As you see, the dealer has the right to notice so they may repair it. And the consumer must use certified mail, return receipt requested (more on this below) to make an official complaint. If the dealer doesn’t succeed, you may get a refund or replacement. If they don’t, that’s when you would need to get this law enforced.
Protecting and Supporting Your Claim
If it comes to a legal battle, you want plenty of evidence that your car meets the lemon law requirements. As I noted above, you must use certified mail, return receipt requested to document your complaint (about the car, not about the dealer) in Maryland. That’s probably a good idea everywhere.
Here are some pointers for making your case:
- Take Notes and Make Copies. Take notes of every conversation (phone calls and in person) you have with the dealer/technicians/anyone connected with the car’s repair. What was the topic? What did they say was the problem? How did they propose to fix it? Make sure to include date and time.Make copies or ask for copies of everything. You want a copy of that official letter you sent. You want copies of the warranty book, any purchase orders the dealership had to sent in, even keep the owner’s manual. If these are in your control, they can’t mysteriously disappear.
- Check for Technical Service Bulletins. TSBs are alerts sent to dealerships by the manufacturer which discuss known defects or necessary repairs. Your dealer might not mention that this is a known issue, so ask for a TSB. Even present a written request, if you need to.
- Get Organized. At the very least, but your notes and copies in order so that they tell a story of the car’s saga from the day you first brought it in for repair until now. If you can, prepare a list of every instance you had to bring it in. Include how many days your car has been unusable, either because it’s being repaired or because of the problem. Lined paper will work, though you can also use a calendar to create a nice “days-out-of-service” effect.
As a consumer, you have protections. It may feel like a hassle to document your claim, but it’s well worth the effort if it helps you get rid of a lemon. Don’t let the dealerships bully you. Know your rights.