How Can the California Lemon Law Help Me?

Do you have that sinking feeling the car you bought a few months ago is a lemon? Have you been to the repair shop so many times you feel like it has a revolving door? You may be feeling a little helpless at this point, but take heart, the law is on your side.

The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, better known as California’s “lemon law,” protects purchasers of all sorts of consumer goods covered by express or implied warranties, including motor vehicles. If your car dealer cannot repair your car after a reasonable number of attempts, the law may deem it a “lemon“ and may entitle you to a replacement vehicle or a purchase price refund. As with most laws, the devil is in the details, so let us review how the California Lemon L0aw really works.

Let’s say you’ve had your new car for a month, or so, and suddenly your brakes inexplicably fail. You have the vehicle towed to your dealer for a warranty repair. In a day or so, your car is back in your driveway, ostensibly as good as new. On your way to work, just three weeks later, the brakes fail again! You end up back at the dealer angry and frustrated that this has happened again. This time, the dealer assures you, the brakes are well and truly fixed. However, after a few weeks, to your chagrin, the brakes fail yet again.  This time you count yourself lucky you haven’t been seriously injured or even killed. You’ve lost faith in your dealer’s ability to fix this problem, but you need a reliable car. What can you do?

When you buy a new vehicle, federal law requires that the manufacturer must provide you with an express warranty. An express warranty is a legally binding promise from the manufacturer that the vehicle will work as it is supposed to and if it does not, the manufacturer will repair or replace it.

California’s Lemon Law expands upon the federally mandated express warranty by requiring that any new or used car that is sold with an express warranty and that any problems that “substantially impair the use, value or safety” of the vehicle must be repaired within a “reasonable number of attempts.”

But, you ask, how many repair attempts are reasonable? The rule of thumb is at least two (2), but more may be required, depending on the nature of the repair and the circumstances of your situation. Generally, you may be entitled to presume under the law that your car is a “lemon“ if during the first eighteen (18) months or eighteen thousand (18,000) miles after you’ve bought it, and:

– It has undergone two (2) or more repair attempts for a problem “likely to cause death or serious bodily injury”; or
– It has undergone four (4) or more repair attempts for the same defect

It is important to note that in order to qualify for the statutory presumption under the California Lemon Law described above, you must have directly notified the manufacturer about the car’s need for repair. This means you must write a letter to the manufacturer and send it to the address shown in your owner’s manual. Describe the problem clearly in your letter and make sure to send it return receipt requested so you will be able to prove you complied with this requirement. Be sure to keep a copy.

If the shop has kept your car longer than thirty (30) days, even if it is only the first repair attempt, you may be entitled to presume your car is a “lemon.“ However, this won’t apply if you give your written permission to the shop to take longer than thirty (30) days to fix the problem, or if circumstances beyond the manufacturer’s control cause this delay.

It is important to understand the difference between an express warranty and an “extended warranty” or “service contract.” Federal law requires the manufacturer to give you an express warranty for any new car you purchase. You do not have to ask for it or pay extra for it. Extended warranties or service contracts, on the other hand, are contractual repair agreements you negotiate with third parties other than the manufacturer and pay under a separate fee. California’s Lemon Law does not apply to these types of extended warranties or service contracts.

If your problem is covered by the California Lemon law, you may be wondering who decides whether you get a new replacement vehicle or a refund? You do! If you decide you want a replacement vehicle, the California Lemon Law entitles you to one that is “substantially identical” to the one you originally bought. A decision on what is “substantially identical” is a decision you and the dealer will make together. The dealer may not twist your arm to make you take a car you don’t really want. Similarly, you cannot insist the dealer give you a car he doesn’t want to give you.

Alternatively, if you choose a refund instead of a replacement vehicle, a few rules apply. Your refund will be limited to the price you paid for the vehicle, minus any non-manufacturer extras the dealer may have added at the showroom. Keep in mind that the dealer is entitled to reduce the amount of your refund by calculating the mileage you got out of the car before the first time you took it in for the unsuccessful repair. Vehicles are assumed under the California Lemon Law to have a lifespan of about one hundred twenty thousand (120,000) miles. You can calculate the approximate “mileage offset” for yourself by multiplying the purchase price by the mileage at the time you first took the car to the dealer, and divide that figure by one hundred twenty thousand (120,000).

No matter whether you choose a new car or a refund, you are also entitled to reimbursement for sales or use taxes; license and registration fees; and any incidental costs you’ve had to pay, such as towing, other repairs, finance charges and rental car costs.

You need to be persistent and observant to preserve your rights under the California Lemon Law. Your dealer may try to allege your car’s problem was caused by something you did to it. The dealer may also try to get you to agree to let it keep working on the problem. Read carefully and be sure to keep all your repair receipts. Take care to ensure a repeat problem is described on your repair paperwork the same way each time you bring the car back in for repair. If you do not do this, you may hear your dealer assert that the California Lemon Law doesn’t apply because you came in for multiple problems, not the same defect multiple times.

Lemons are a tricky business, but if you’ve got one the law is on your side.

 

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