A lemon law is a statute that is designed to protect the buyers of new cars from serious problems with their newly purchased cars. Lemon laws are most likely to apply when a manufacturer is unable to repair a problem with a new car within a reasonable amount of time.
Lemon law claims are made against the manufacturer of the vehicle, not the dealership that sold you the new car.
In most states, lemon law remedies are available only for new vehicles. A few states offer lemon law protections for used vehicles.
New Car Lemon Laws
A new car typically qualifies as a "lemon" when it has a defect that substantially affects its use, safety, or value. Lemon laws may be implicated by problems including having a car that repeatedly won't start, that has brake problems, or that doesn't properly shift gears.
Lemon laws focus on problems caused by the same defect. A new car that has a dozen different problems during the warranty period, but that has no recurring problems, is not a lemon in the eyes of the law. However, the owner of such a car may have remedies available under other laws.
Under a typical lemon law, before a claim can be successfully made there must have been repeated unsuccessful efforts by the dealership or manufacturer to repair the same car problem. In most states, three or four repair attempts are required before lemon laws are triggered.
There may be a threshold number of days the car is under repair at the manufacturer's facility before lemon laws apply. In a small number of states the failure to fix certain major car problems on the first attempt may trigger the state's lemon law, but most states require multiple repair attempts before a car is deemed a lemon.
Under lemon law, the repair attempts must occur within a warranty period as defined by the lemon law statute. That warranty period may not be the same as the manufacturer's warranty.
When a manufacturer is not able to repair a vehicle within the time frame defined by a state's lemon law, the manufacturer is normally required to buy back the vehicle from the purchaser or replace it with another new vehicle.
It is important to learn the laws of your state, which are usually summarized on the state attorney general's website, and are also summarized by the Better Business Bureau.
Used Car Lemon Laws
Only six states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York, have passed lemon laws that apply to used vehicles. In other states buyers are dependent upon used car warranties, and are usually left without recourse for problems with any used car that they purchase as-is.
Used car lemon laws provide what amounts to a limited warranty, the duration of which is based upon factors such as the age of the vehicle and its mileage at the time of sale. If the used vehicle has problems that fall under the lemon law and cannot be repaired within the time frame defined in the law, the used car dealership must either replace the vehicle or buy it back.
Some states require warranties on some or all used cars sold by dealerships. Those states include Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. However, the warranty protection relates only to repair of the vehicle, and those laws do not require used car dealerships to replace the vehicle or to issue a refund. Used car statutory warranties may also be in effect for only a short period of time after the sale.
Leased Cars, and Motorcycles
In most states, lemon laws apply only to new car purchases and not to leased cars. Few states have lemon laws that apply to motorcycle sales. However, even for vehicles which are not covered by lemon laws, other remedies may be available under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which is discussed later in this article, or state consumer law.
The process for making a lemon law claim varies from state to state, depending upon where you purchased the vehicle.
- In some states it is easy to make your claim without a lawyer.
- In other states it very much helps to involve a lawyer in your case.
Document the Car Problem
If you are having problems with a vehicle that may qualify as a lemon, it is very important to fully document your claim.
- You should keep copies of all documents that you give to or receive from the dealership.
- You should try to communicate in writing, so that you have a written record of all communication and promises.
- You should make a note about every conversation you have in relation to your repair efforts, including the date, the person's name, their job title, and what they said or promised during your discussion.
For more information on how to document a lemon law claim, please see this associated article: Documenting Your Lemon Law Claim.
Lemon Car Arbitration
Sometimes, manufacturers will attempt to get consumers to agree to arbitration to resolve disputes over lemon vehicles. Many consumers will be able to resolve lemon law claims themselves, perhaps prior to arbitration, or perhaps as a result of it. However,
- If you agree to arbitration you should expect to be bound by the decision of the arbitrator, even if you think it is incorrect or unfair.
- The arbitration process may be frustrating or difficult to understand.
You should consult a lawyer before agreeing to arbitrate your lemon law claim. A lawyer can help you figure out if arbitration would be helpful, or if you will be better served by filing suit.
Lemon Law Remedies
Depending upon the full facts of a lemon law claim and applicable lemon laws, the remedies available to consumers after a successful lemon law claim are:
- The manufacturer may repurchase the vehicle, possibly with an additional payment for funds invested in the car, less a mileage offset (a deduction for the amount of miles placed on the car before repurchase); or
- Sometimes the manufacturer will provide a new replacement vehicle.
In some states, lawyers will be able to collect attorney fees if they win your claim.
Even in states that do not provide for an award of attorney fees as a matter of law, an attorney may be able to recover fees on the basis of a successful claim under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a federal law designed to protect consumers from deceptive warranty practices.
A word of caution: Some states require that a vehicle owner who is unsuccessful in lemon law litigation to repay the manufacturer's legal fees. It makes sense to discuss the laws of your state with an attorney before deciding how you will proceed with a lemon law claim.
Lemon laws are not the only remedy available to people who purchase lemon vehicles.
Even if you do not qualify for a lemon law remedy due to the nature of the trouble with your car (for example, a cosmetic issue such as peeling paint, or an annoyance such as a malfunctioning dome light or radio) or due to a repair which either fixes the problem or at least diminishes its effect on the car, you may nonetheless have a claims for breach of warranty or for a violation of your state's consumer protection laws.