Everyone knows what you should do when life gives you lemons, but what if it gives you a lemon car? If your car keeps breaking down, it may take more than a cold glass of lemonade to cool you off. Fortunately for all Americans — and many state legislators — the U.S. Congress shares this view. They’ve established laws that require automakers to refund your money or replace your car if it can’t be fixed in a reasonable amount of time, and those are usually referred to as lemon cars.
If you’re having a bad experience with a newer vehicle, there are some ways to sweeten the outcome.
What Is a Lemon Car?
A car is considered a lemon if it has a substantial defect that the automaker can’t fix within a reasonable amount of time. The definition of “substantial defect” and “reasonable amount of time” is case-by-case and varies based on the lemon law for the state you’re in, if it has one (not all states do).
What Are Lemon Laws for Cars?
Federal lemon law
Lemoning a car is a bit of a process. The federal “lemon law” that covers most of these situations can be found in Title 15, Chapter 50 of the U.S. Code, in Sections 2301-2312. Also known as the Magnuson Moss Warranty Federal Trade Commission Improvements Act, the law sets regulations for consumer products that are covered by written warranties.
If you’re making a lemon law claim, you’re essentially saying your car didn’t live up to its warranty. That means you have to buy a car with a warranty to have a good case. Remember that you don’t have to buy a brand-new car for lemon-law protection. Used cars and trucks sold with warranties are covered as well.
At the heart of the matter is Section 2304(a)(1): “If the product (or a component part thereof) contains a defect or malfunction after a reasonable number of attempts by the warrantor to remedy defects or malfunctions in such product, such warrantor must permit the consumer to elect either a refund for or replacement without charge of, such product or part (as the case may be).”
In other words, if an automaker can’t make things right in a reasonable amount of time, it has to let you choose between a refund or a replacement.
State lemon laws
Many states complement the U.S. Code with their own lemon laws. They can vary in the details but work much like the federal statutes. Consider Michigan, where some U.S. automakers have their headquarters. The Great Lakes State will let you sue for a replacement or refund if an automaker hasn’t been able to fix the same problem after four tries. Alternatively, you may have a claim if your car has been kept out of action by repairs for at least 30 days. Another qualification has to do with when the problem initially appears. It has to be within a year of the original new-vehicle delivery date or within the coverage period of the warranty, whichever comes first.
Fixing a Lemon Car
Prepare to provide a lot of paperwork
Keeping careful track of your vehicle’s service records is a good idea, but it’s vital if you want to prove that your car is a lemon. Consumer advocates recommend keeping copies of all correspondence with automakers or car dealers. This includes holding on to your receipts and work orders from any repairs so you have a timeline of exactly when the service occurred. It can also be helpful to see if other drivers have the same problems. You can search for your car’s vehicle identification number online using the Carfax Vehicle Recall Check page and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website. The info you get can be important when trying to prove your car or truck is a lemon.
Should I hire an attorney to sell my defective car?
You usually have to take your vehicle to the dealer for repairs, or you will void your warranty. Additionally, it doesn’t make sense to sue an automaker immediately. First, you must send a formal letter to the company outlining your claim and asking for your preferred remedy. It’s easy to find templates for these letters online, and you can adjust the details to fit your specific case. If your claim is denied, you’ll need to decide whether to go through an arbitration process. The Magnuson Moss Act encourages companies to set up informal dispute-resolution programs like that to deal with warranty issues. If a company does so, as most automakers have, you need to go through arbitration before going to court.
The court only comes into play as a last resort or if someone questions the fairness of the arbitration program. At that stage, provided you win your case, you can get a replacement car or a refund, along with costs and expenses, including lawyers’ fees. The same doesn’t hold true for arbitration, although you should still consider hiring a lawyer if you must go through that process. You can be sure the automaker will have paid experts on its side.
Getting rid of a defective vehicle can be challenging enough. A 2018 article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel states that a woman won almost $410,000 in a case against Mercedes-Benz, including attorney’s fees. However, she had to spend four years pursuing her claim. If you’re a used car buyer, you need to be particularly careful during the shopping process. You won’t necessarily know if a car is a lemon from a test drive. What can help in some circumstances is checking the title. The car may be branded as a lemon, or the title may use different language that only notes the vehicle had been repurchased by the automaker.
How to Avoid Picking a Used Lemon
A Carfax Vehicle History Report can disclose title issues when shopping for a pre-owned car or truck. However, more than two-thirds of states don’t require any special title branding for lemons. This means that you should pay attention to the parts of the Vehicle History Report that show a car’s ownership and service records. If you see the manufacturer has owned the car after an individual had purchased it, or if there are three or four repairs for the same issue in a short period, those are major red flags that could cost you a lot of green in the future.
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