Everyone knows what you’re supposed to do when life gives you lemons. But if you’re constantly taking your car into the shop, it may take more than a cold glass of lemonade to cool you off. The good news is that the U.S. Congress, and many state legislators, think the same way. 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.
So if you’re having a sour experience with a newer vehicle, there are some ways to sweeten the outcome.
Cracking the Code
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 down regulations for consumer products that are covered by written warranties. To be clear, it doesn’t require companies to offer written warranties. The Act only provides legal guidelines when they do. So 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. Just remember that you don’t have to buy a car that’s brand new to get lemon-law protection. Pre-owned cars and trucks with warranties can be 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.
Many states then complement the U.S. Code with their own lemon laws for motor vehicles. They can vary in the details but work much like the federal statutes. Consider Michigan, where the 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.
Prepare to Provide a lot of Paperwork
Keeping careful track of your vehicle’s service records is a good idea in any case, but it’s vital if you want to prove that your car is a lemon. Consumer advocates actually recommend that you keep 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 are having the same problems. You can do this by searching your car’s vehicle identification number online at places like the Carfax Vehicle Recall Check page and the website for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The latter can provide additional data, too, such as information about NHTSA investigations and manufacturer Technical Service Bulletins. None of these may rise to the level of a recall, and they may not affect your individual vehicle. However, this info can still be important when you’re trying to prove your car or truck is a lemon.
Follow the Rules and Hire an Attorney
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 right off the bat. First, you need to send a formal letter to the company outlining your claim and asking for your preferred remedy. It’s easy to find templates for these kinds of letters online, and you can simply adjust the details to fit your specific case. If your claim is denied, you’ll need to decide if you want 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, then you need to go through arbitration before you can go 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 that include lawyers’ fees. The same doesn’t hold true for arbitration, although you should still think carefully about hiring a lawyer if you have to go through that process. You can be sure the automaker will have paid experts on its side.
How to Avoid Picking a Used Lemon
Getting rid of a defective vehicle can be challenging enough. According to a 2018 article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 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.
A CARFAX Vehicle History Report can disclose title issues like that when you’re shopping for a pre-owned car or truck. However, more than two-thirds of all 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 it had been purchased by an individual, or if there are three or four repairs for the same issue in a short period of time, those are major red flags that could end up costing you a lot of green in the future.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2015. It has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.