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Getting Some Lemon-Aid From Your Lemon Maker

We hope that you never actually have a reason to read an article about Lemon laws. But if you do, we'd like to make this unpleasant and at times complex subject seem a little less daunting, putting a little hope back in the sour situation of living day to day with a dreaded "lemon."

Repeat after us in your best Forrest Gump accent, "Mama always says, turn those lemons you are given into lemonade."

To that end, let's try to pare your lemon from the tree. First, we have to determine if you even have a lemon, after all it could just be a bad apple (yes, pun intended). We'll try to point you in the right direction, to either proceed yourself or to seek professional legal advice.

Magnuson-Moss — What's it all about?

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty act is a Federal Law that protects the buyer of any product that costs more than $25 and comes with an express written warranty. Nearly all state Lemon Law Statutes are similar to the Federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. All states have enacted their own Warranty Acts and many have enacted specific statutes that cover automobile warranties. If your vehicle is not considered a "lemon" in your state, you may have another recourse. To find out more about the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, click on the link below.

I Think My Car Is A Lemon! Now what?

Before we can address that, we must first determine if the vehicle is eligible for Lemon Law. The vehicle must be used part of the time for personal, family, or household purposes. If the vehicle is used exclusively for business purposes, the Lemon Law will not apply, but other laws may. Laws do vary from state to state and between new, used and leased vehicles. Generally, the vehicle must have defects covered by a warranty. Check the "State by State Lemon Law Information" link listed for your state's information.

A "lemon" is a vehicle that continues to have a defect or defects that substantially impair its use, value, or safety. In general, if the vehicle has had a "reasonable" number of repair attempts for the same defect within the warranty period, and the defect has not been repaired, the vehicle qualifies as a "lemon." The term "reasonable number of repair attempts" varies depending on the defect, and also varies by state. Safety-related defects, typically, require fewer repair attempts than non-safety defects to be considered a "reasonable number of repair attempts." Keep in mind, though, if it is not covered by a warranty, it is not covered by Lemon Law.

OK, I think I may have a case; what's next?

The first thing to do is to make absolutely sure that when you bring the vehicle in for service, the service advisor writes up your concern on the repair order, exactly as you describe it. Before you sign the repair order, check the date, time in, and odometer reading to verify they are correct. If you do find discrepancies, have them changed before you sign the repair order. When you pick the vehicle up, review the correction done for each concern, date, time, and mileage out. If the concern continues, make sure that you describe the concern exactly the same way on each repair visit or you may forfeit your rights under the "reasonable attempts to repair for the same defect" clause. In most states you have Lemon Law coverage if the vehicle has been in the repair shop for an accumulative number of days, so keep records of this information as well. If you have a failure that leaves you stranded, record the date, time, mileage, if you rented a vehicle and the amount of time you had to wait for assistance. The emotional trauma you experience in dealing with a defective vehicle does have bearing on your case should you proceed to arbitration or court.

Do I need legal counsel?

After your state's requirement for number of repair attempts, or days out of service, has been met, some states require that you send a letter to the manufacturer (use certified mail) to give them one last chance to repair the vehicle. Be sure to keep copies of any letters, and originals of any documents requested, for your records. Again, check your state's laws to see what applies in your area. In some states, with proper documentation, you simply file a complaint. In others, you should hire an attorney. Keep in mind that you can use arbitration before proceeding to court. Consumers do not need to hire an attorney to go through the arbitration process, although you are allowed to use one, and in some states you can be awarded attorney's fees if you win. Some states have arbitration that is manufacturer-run and in others it is a state-run program, which is preferable to one run by the manufacturer. Arbitration is legally binding on the manufacturer only, in most states. You can always proceed to court if you do not get the results you were expecting.

How much can I expect to pay for legal counsel?

Most attorneys take this type of case on a contingency or semi-contingency basis. Only some of the states allow you to recover attorney fees; again, check with your state's laws. If your attorney sues under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, the dealer or manufacturer is responsible for attorney fees if you win. Attorney fees in this case are based on time spent as opposed to percentage of recovery, and some states limit the amount an attorney can recover for their time spent on your case. According to California Attorney Kurt Delsack, most attorneys will be selective in choosing to take on a case, but the ones they do take on have a high percentage of winning. In some states, you are responsible for dealer or manufacturer attorney fees if you do lose.

Do I get the same kind of vehicle if the manufacturer buys the car back?

If your vehicle is determined to be a "lemon" under the law, you are entitled to a refund or "comparable replacement vehicle." A "comparable replacement vehicle" is defined as either identical or a reasonable equivalent. A refund includes your purchase price, taxes, and any dealer-installed options, minus an offset for your usage of the vehicle, again with variances from state to state.

What happens to my Lemon once the manufacturer buys it back?

This will also vary from state to state, but in California the titles are branded "Lemon Law Buyback" according to Evan Nossoff of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The Lemon Law defect is then repaired and the vehicle is offered for sale. The selling dealer of the vehicle must also disclose to the potential purchaser that it is a Lemon Law Buyback vehicle and the nature of the Lemon Law defect(s). According to Attorney David J. Farrell, in California, you are also given a Lemon Law Warranty to cover the defect for 12 months and unlimited mileage, plus the remainder of the manufacturer's warranty, if applicable. There is a potential for a "Lemon Law Buyback" vehicle to not be sold as such. If the vehicle is transferred from one state to another, the state the vehicle is newly titled in may not recognize the previous state's title branding. In many cases, a VIN check can find a Lemon Law branded title from other states. To check for a possible branded title, click for a free CarFax record check.

What to do, what to do?

We have just touched on the basics of Lemon Law Warranties, but you can see that the most important thing to remember is to document everything. Check with your state's Attorney General Office concerning your Lemon Laws. You, the consumer, have rights and we want to make sure that you get to enjoy the sweet taste of lemonade and not just the bitter bite of lemon.

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