Are ‘Lemon Laws’ for Defective Cars Legally Binding?

Sometimes a car you buy comes with unfixable problems. This can cause major concerns for car safety. These problems can be unfixable because the issue can’t be fixed with a recall or the automaker refuses to issue a recall because it would be too costly for them. The good news is that in some states, there are what’s called ‘Lemon Laws’ to help protect the consumer. However, are these lemon laws legally binding? Let’s look at when you can take advantage of lemon laws and how to avoid the pitfalls of being stuck with a faulty or broken car

Lemon laws were created to protect the consumer

According to Legal Dictionary, “A lemon law is a civil law term that refers to a law that protects consumers when they purchase a vehicle or other item that fails to function as it should. Lemon laws provide people with a remedy if they purchase certain items that do not meet standards of performance  expected of such an item.”

A lemon law is a law that requires the manufacturer or seller to buy back, repair, or refund the cost of a defective item. 

A car qualifies as a lemon only if it has a problem considered to be a substantial defect. A substantial defect is a problem or flaw that impairs normal use, safety, or value. Issues like a faulty radio, broken knob, or other simple repairs would not be considered substantial defects. The problem has to leave the car inoperable or unsafe. 

The manufacturer or seller also has rights under lemon laws. The manufacturer or seller is entitled to a certain number of repair attempts before replacing the vehicle or providing a refund. This also protects the consumer by not allowing endless repair attempts used just to put off the inevitable. Typically, the limit is three to four repair attempts before the manufacturer or seller needs to refund or replace the vehicle. 

Lemon laws vary by state 

An exhibit for the Chevrolet Vega, a notorious lemon car, seen at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles
A Chevrolet Vega exhibit at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles | MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

While the general understanding of lemon laws is the same nationwide, the details of lemon laws do vary from state to state, according to Consumer Reports. The qualifications that must be met before a car is considered a lemon also vary between states. If you suspect your car could be a lemon, you need to check with your state’s consumer protection office.

According to Lawyers 4 Lemons, it is important to remember that to be eligible for a manufacturer buyback, the vehicle in question must still be under the original warranty (not a void or expired warranty) when the problem was discovered. Also, the problem must become evident within the first 18 months from delivery or the first 18,000 miles to be considered a lemon. 

It is also important to know that lemon laws typically only apply to new vehicles. Still, depending on your state’s lemon laws, your used car may be protected. These stipulations can be confusing and complicated, so it’s important to know and understand them. 

Keep good records to help your case 

So, you have a car that you think qualifies as a lemon, and you would like just compensation. What do you do next? 

  • Check your state lemon laws: Learn how lemon laws specifically work in your state of residence.
  • Contact your local dealership: The dealership needs to be aware of what’s going on. You can also request a loaner car if your car is not safe to drive.
  • Contact the manufacturer: The manufacturer also needs to be aware of what’s happening with their vehicles. The manufacturer can tell you more information on when parts are arriving and how long the repair could take. Accommodations can be made on a case-by-case basis, but you need to ask first. 
  • Contact the NHTSA: Put pressure on the manufacturer by contacting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) if you aren’t getting any movement in your case. 
  • Find a lawyer: If your efforts with the dealership or manufacturer go unnoticed, it could be time to contact a lawyer. A lawyer can assess the strength of your case and whether or not you are eligible under your state laws. Many lawyers won’t charge an upfront fee in product defect cases but be aware there could be fees at the end of the case. 

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