Lemon law claims are becoming a more common occurrence across the United States as the number of auto sales rise and reliability decreases.
In a nutshell, a lemon law claim is when a consumer is sold a defective product (normally a vehicle) which is covered by a warranty given by the seller/manufacturer/distributor. The claim requires the warrantor to provide a refund (buyback) or replace the consumer good with one that works.
As much as we’d like to tell you that lemon law claims are this straightforward, that’s simply not the case (no pun intended). There are many, many factors that go into the process of filing a lemon law claim in California. Then, there are a heap of obstacles in the way of getting compensated for the full amount you are owed.
Keep in mind, auto manufacturers, in particular, have access to some of the best legal teams money can buy. These teams have built long, protible careers out of countering lemon law claims, deterring consumer action, and using every nuanced legal tactic in the book to provide the lowest possible settlement and save their corporate clients endless sums of money.
Before we go any further, we cannot stress the importance of hiring a specialized lemon law attorney enough. Otherwise, you’re easy prey for the seasoned legal teams of the big corporate automakers.
In addition to seeking out a lemon law lawyer, you should have a decent level of knowledge related to the process of California lemon law claims. Ultimately, the more you are able to provide to your lawyer, the better position you will be in to receive a quick, comprehensive buyback.
The good news is the main points are more or less straightforward – and your knowledge of them will make a world of difference in your claim. So without further ado, let’s dive into everything consumers need to know about a lemon law claim in California.
Chapter 1: What Qualifies as a Lemon Law Claim in California?
A version of the lemon law exists in all 50 states. However, the details vary from state-to-state – mainly the legal requirements for a successful lemon law claim. For instance, in many states, the lemon law may not apply to a used vehicle. In other states, like California, as long as the vehicle is sold with an express warranty there is lemon law on used cars.
Now, the first time you realize that your car has a problem (and still under warranty) may not automatically qualify it as a lemon – no matter what state you are in. Upon discovering your new, used, or leased vehicle has a defect, the manufacturer may have several opportunities to remedy the problem.
To establish a valid California lemon law claim, the most common elements usually include, but are not limited to the following California lemon law qualifications.
1. The vehicle has/had a defect, covered by the warranty, which substantially impairs the vehicle’s use, value, or safety to a reasonable person in the consumers (your) specific situation.
2. a. The manufacturer, through its local authorized repair facility, was given at least two or more repair opportunities.
b. The vehicle has been out of service for repairs for more than 30 days.
3. The substantial defect was not a result of the consumer (your) unreasonable or unauthorized use.
At the first sign of a problem, your course of action should be to schedule an appointment with your local warrantor authorized repair facility. Tell your service advisor about the problem and they should begin the process of working to repair it.
Does your vehicle meet the qualifications of California lemon law? Call us. Not the manufacturer or warrantor. If your vehicle meets the criteria of a lemon, your communication with the manufacturer or warrantor is over. Leave it to your lemon law lawyer to get you full compensation.
Chapter 2: How to Avoid Four Common Lemon Law Rip-Offs?
There are a handful of common ways warrantors will try to compromise your lemon law claim with some rip-off tactics right off the bat. In this chapter, we want to go over some of the big ones and how to avoid falling prey.
Before we dive in, it’s vitally important to always remember this: the manufacturer/warrantor is NOT your friend in a lemon law claim.
They will likely try to convince you to do a number of things that will “make everything easier and quicker.” Don’t take the bait. Translated into english, this means “easier and cheaper” for the manufacturer/warrantor. The manufacturer’s number one goal in this process is to avoid compensating you for a lemon. Moreover, some of these tactics will make matters hopeless – even if you get a lemon law lawyer after the fact.
Here are some of the most important things you can do to avoid getting ripped off.
- NEVER sign your rights away before talking to a lemon law attorney.
This is THE biggest thing that will ruin your lemon law claim. All too often, we’ve had consumers come to us with a myriad of problems, repair histories, and proof of manufacturer negligence, and we simply cannot help them. This is because they made the crucial error of signing away their warranty and lemon law rights.
A common (devious) tactic of automakers is to offer the consumer a warranty extension or a reimbursement for a month or two’s payment if they are experiencing problems. This is often accompanied with a settlement and release agreement related to claims on the vehicle’s repair history. What many don’t realize is this is a release of the right to pursue a lemon law claim or anything related to breach of warranty for ongoing issues.
Of course, this is all buried in the fine print.
Signing a release in this situation may take away your rights under the California lemon law – while the manufacturer only gets a tiny slap on the wrist.
So, if you’re having recurring issues with your vehicle – whether it be a car, motorcycle, boat, RV, etc. – NEVER sign ANY documents to receive compensation without showing it to your lemon law lawyer first.
- NEVER accept arbitration – no matter how much manufacturers push for it.
Manufacturers have all sorts of tricks and rhetoric to make arbitration seem like a better option than taking a lemon law claim to court. Under no circumstances is this true.
Arbitration is when you take your case in front of one single arbitrator or panel of arbitrators to determine the legitimacy of your claim. These arbitration clauses can make it impossible for consumers to sue the warrantor in court. Consumers are far less likely to win their cases in private arbitration, and even when they do win, they tend to get far less money than they would in court.
One of the most unsavory tricks manufacturers have up their sleeves is to bring in “independent” arbitrators. These are almost always sponsored by the manufacturer. When this happens, they almost always rule in favor of the manufacturer – no matter how strong your case may be. There is a reason the warrantor wants you to go to arbitration–because it is good for it and bad for you, “Arbitration is one of the central ways in which corporate America has rigged the system against middle class families, working people,” United States Representative Rosa DeLauro, representing the Third District of Connecticut (9/20/19-House of Representatives).
Essentially, opting for arbitration means that no one is truly on your side.
Manufacturers will try to convince you that arbitration is a very cheap, quick, and painless alternative than going to court. In reality, it’s only cheap, quick, and painless for them while they rip you off.
Now, going to arbitration and having your lemon law claim struck down may not be the end of the line. If the arbitration is non-binding on you, the consumer, you can still take your case to court. However, you will certainly be in a bit of a hole – as the warrantor will be able to use the negative arbitration decision against you with the judge. Therefore, the judge will have a mountain of evidence in favor of the warrantor/manufacturer.
The bottom line is to not fall into any of the manufacturer’s ploy to take the claim to arbitration. ALWAYS tell them you want to speak to a lemon lawyer instead. If you’d like further details on how forced arbitration provisions work and the fight against them, the online magazine Vox has a great article detailing the FAIR Act which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019.
- NEVER skip over lemon law clauses in purchase orders.
Depending on what manufacturer you buy from, you may end up stuck with arbitration.
Tesla currently has arbitration clauses in its purchase agreements. However, with Tesla, buyer’s have a 30-day limit from the delivery date to opt out of the forced arbitration provision and file a lemon law claim. If Tesla is not notified of the “opt-out” within this 30-day timeframe, the consumer is not able to use our court system, the very court system enshrined as a right in our State and Federal Constitutions, the very court’s we the taxpayers fund. A binding private arbitration proceeding, of which no two are the same and essentially no rules that the arbitrators have to follow under the law, is the only option at this point.
The clause looks like this:
The good news is you can opt out of this within 30 days of the purchase date.
It is absolutely vital that you do this – no matter how excited you are that you just purchased a new vehicle. Tesla is not known for being consumer-friendly when it comes to lemons; failing to opt out of this clause can potentially cause major headaches down the road.
- NEVER sign an out of court lemon law agreement that puts ANY attorney fees on you – or allows the attorney to be paid more out of a cash settlement.
Under the federal and California lemon law, consumers have the right to recover attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses from the manufacturer.
Now, the vast majority of lemon law claims are settled out of court with the help of a specialized attorney. For this reason, DO NOT EVER sign any out of court agreement that puts you on the hook for attorney fees. Your lemon law lawyer will be able to recoup them from the manufacturer as part of the settlement.
There are a couple scenarios in which the defense attorneys try to charge consumers for their fees, including (but not limited to):
- The manufacturer refuses to pay all the attorney fees or comply with the final decision – and the defense lawyer demands you cover the difference. If you have a legitimate lemon law claim, this is likely a situation where you would need to go to court to receive full compensation.
- The manufacturer attempts to pay a small cash settlement, which is not enough to cover your compensation and your incurred costs, including expenses and attorney fees. In this scenario, the defense team lemon law lawyer refuses to pay your lawyer for any of the fees, costs and expenses incurred on your behalf to secure the cash payment.
This is why you always need to go the extra mile in choosing a reputable, trustworthy lawyer.
Generally, a good lemon law lawyer won’t take your case unless they think they can win – but that’s not a guarantee of victory.
If a case goes to court, it’s impossible to have a timeline for how long it will take – or how much work will be involved once the lawsuit is filed. Resolving a case in court after a trial may take longer than it would out of court, before a trial. As a result, both you and the attorney may share the risk of litigation.
So the bottom line is this: if you are one of the rare instances in which your lemon law claim requires resolving your matter with a jury trial, NEVER, EVER agree to pay your attorney fees up front, or a percentage paid from your buyback judgment.
Chapter 3: Misconceptions about California Lemon Law Claims
In this chapter, we want to debunk some of the biggest myths and misconceptions consumers tend to have about California lemon law.
- Misconception #1: You cannot have a valid lemon law claim if the vehicle has more than 18K miles on it or it’s more than 18 months past delivery date.
Time/mileage limits are arguably one of the biggest misconceptions out there about lemon law as a whole.
When you do research online about California lemon law, you may read that your claim may only be valid if the defective vehicle has less than 18,000 miles accrued on the odometer or it’s been less than 18 months since the purchase date.
This is not true. The under 18K miles and 18 months since the purchase date are merely figures of lemon law presumption. In essence, if your vehicle is presumed to be a lemon within these figures, it means your case is very, very strong – but you are certainly not out of luck if they aren’t.
Your vehicle can be deemed a lemon as long as it’s under the manufacturer or dealership warranty. These figures will vary based on the vehicle, manufacturer, and warrantor. Most warranties on new vehicles are good for 3 years or before 36,000 miles for the bumper to bumper warranty, but may last as long as 5 years or 100,000 miles or longer depending on the type of warranty.
- Misconception #2: Used or leased cars do not apply.
Used and leased lemons are where California lemon law can seem a little confusing. The good news is it’s not as tricky as it might seem on the surface.
With leased lemons, you have the exact same rights as you would with a purchased lemon. If your leased vehicle meets the California lemon law qualifications, you can pursue a claim in the same manner; the only difference is your refund will look a little different.
When you purchase a vehicle that is deemed a lemon, the manufacturer typically must compensate you for the down payment, any and all monthly payments made, and all official costs (registration, taxes, etc.) – minus the mileage offset. With a leased lemon, the manufacturer must reimburse you for the same as a purchase and buy out the remainder of the lease.
So how exactly does the lemon law apply to certified used cars?
California lemon law for used cars can be a gray area. There are two main scenarios in which you can still receive a buyback for a used lemon.
- The used vehicle is still covered under the original manufacturer’s warranty.
- The used vehicle is covered under the dealership warranty.
The dealership warranty doesn’t generally last as long as the original manufacturer warranty. In most cases, used vehicles are sold at dealerships with a warranty that lasts one to three months – or before 1,000 miles accrue on the odometer.
If you bought the used vehicle “as is”, it may be unlikely you will be eligible for any benefits under California lemon law. Buying a vehicle “as is” means you take full responsibility for any issues once you drive it off the lot.
When you purchase a used vehicle from a dealer, they are legally obligated to specify whether or not it is being sold “as is” in the buyer’s guide. This must be displayed on the vehicle.
- Misconception #3: The vehicle must be in perfect condition.
This is a surprisingly big myth we run into. As long as the defective vehicle is covered under the warranty and the substantial defect was not a result of driver abuse, you still qualify.
Your vehicle can have some dings and still be deemed a legitimate lemon – as long as the dings didn’t have an impact on the defect.
For example, a dent in the back bumper will not void a lemon law claim for a faulty engine.
- Misconception #4: Lemon law will not cover the vehicle if the warranty is expired.
This is another area where things can get a bit tricky – and stresses the importance of two crucial factors in lemon law claims:
- Keeping detailed documentation
- Getting your vehicle inspected as soon as you notice something is off.
Automakers are known to drag their feet with lemon law claims. Some believe this is done to waste time in hopes the warranty runs out. In truth, manufacturers likely do this to see if the consumer will simply give up.
If your vehicle starts acting up close to the end of the warranty, the most important thing is that you reported the defect while it was still covered.
When you report the issue to the manufacturer and they begin the repair process, you need to have ALL the documentation. The repair order should list out:
- The date/time you brought the vehicle in (most important)
- Year, make, model, and VIN
- The nonconformity (the issue)
- Name + ID number of the employee you dealt with.
As long as the paperwork proves the issue occurred – and you gave the warrantor an opportunity to repair – during the warranty period, it is not your fault if the warrantor is unable or unwilling to repair the defect.
Chapter 4: Potentially Fatal Mistakes to Avoid When Pursuing a Lemon Law Claim
- #1: Being Rude to Repair or Manufacturer Staff
This one isn’t necessarily fatal, but it’s not going to do you any favors whatsoever.
We get it. You’re frustrated, angry, and fed up with the fact that you spent a pile of your hard-earned money to buy a defective vehicle. If you purchased a new vehicle, you probably did so to avoid the risks tied to buying used. To add insult to injury, the repair staff can’t seem to fix it. It’s easy to get emotional – especially if the problem is putting you at risk.
Unloading on a staff member might seem like a satisfying thing to do, but please, please don’t. Here’s why.
In any civil legal action – in which some sort of compensation is involved – there are three major factors that influence your ability to prevail:
- The law
- Your likeability
If your case ends up going before a jury of your peers, number three can be the most important. In a perfect world, only the facts and the law should matter. But this is simply a reality of our judicial system – that’s just the way it is.
Our goal, if in court, is to convince the jury to order a company to buy back your defective vehicle. If you come off as a rude, or a nasty person, jurors may view you as unreasonable. Additionally, manufacturers know this dynamic all too well and will use it to their advantage in court.
So, no matter how bad things get with the repairs, NEVER take out your frustrations on the staff. You’re only hurting your chances by losing your cool, regardless of how justified your anger may be.
- #2: Being too specific in your complaint.
The early stages of a lemon law claim are the most crucial, specifically when it comes to approaching the manufacturer. It might seem like a good idea to get as granular as possible in your complaint – especially if you know a thing or two about cars.
However, you always want to avoid creating disconnects between the complaint and the repair attempts. In the eyes of California lemon law, two unsuccessful repair attempts on the same part of a vehicle will likely legitimize your lemon law claim.
For instance, if you tell them it’s a problem with the engine the first time, then an issue with the transmission the second time, that could be argued as two separate issues – which can potentially extend the lemon law process. This is why you always want to describe the symptoms you are experiencing and never what you think is the root cause of the defect. For example, say there’s a weird noise coming from an area of the car or smell coming from the front of the vehicle.
Your roll here is simply to describe the symptoms, not diagnose. Remember, when you go to the doctor you explain your symptoms and the doctor provides the diagnosis. The same is true with auto problems.
- #3: Waiting too long to file your claim
To echo a previous section in this piece, timeliness is critical to a lemon law claim. In California, the statute of limitations to file a lemon law claim is four years. The clock can start ticking on this lemon law time limit as soon as you report that you’re experiencing a substantial defect covered under the manufacturer or dealer warranty.
Not only is driving a defective vehicle dangerous for yourself and other drivers, you will most likely be barred from pursuing your claim after the four years has passed.
- #4: Bringing your vehicle to a mechanic that’s not certified by the manufacturer.
If your new or used vehicle is making a weird sound, going to your trusted family mechanic may seem like the logical next step. This is a HUGE fatal mistake that many unsuspecting consumers make.
Taking the vehicle to a non-manufacturer-certified repair facility can (and likely will) void your warranty – and subsequently, your lemon law claim. As a result, you’ll get stuck with the repair costs AND the lemon.
As long as your vehicle is covered under the manufacturer or dealer warranty, the manufacturer or dealership is where you need to go for repairs. They will point you in the direction of a certified mechanic.
- #5: Not getting ALL repair records from a certified technician.
The repair records are the lifeblood of your lemon law claim. These are going to be the official documents that determine whether or not your vehicle is truly a lemon – an oral history will not cut it here.
A repair invoice (from the manufacturer-certified technician) needs to clearly define all the details of your vehicle’s issue, including:
- The “non-conforming condition” (the defective symptoms)
- How the facility attempted to fix it
- The outcome of the attempt
- Costs involved (if applicable)
- Dates the vehicle was in service
- All vehicle information (VIN, mileage, etc.)
The manner in which these invoices are generated is regulated by the California Bureau of Automotive Repair.
Now, perhaps the most crucial aspect of a repair invoice is the indication that the order has been closed. This should be made clear on the document when you pick up your vehicle. This means the repair has been officially “attempted.”
If a repair order is not properly closed, the warrantor will claim all subsequent attempts will fall under that first, open repair attempt. So even if you brought your defective vehicle into the facility four or more times, the warrantor will claim only one repair attempt.
This is where you REALLY need to pay attention to details. Truth be told, we’ve seen manufacturer repair facilities try this trick from time-to-time – whether it’s a mistake or not. It happens more than you think, more often with RV repair facilities.
Chapter 5: Questions to Ask a Lemon Law Firm About Representation
On the flip side, some trustworthy lemon law lawyers might just not be a good fit for your needs.
The key to avoiding a bad outcome with an attorney is to ask the right questions.
Here are some of the major ones to keep in mind as you search for legal help.
- Do you have experience with this manufacturer?
This is a big one. Each manufacturer has a slightly different way of dealing with lemon law claims – some are more difficult than others. For instance, lemon law cases against Hyundai, Kia, and BMW can be a nightmare if you’ve chosen the wrong attorney.
If the attorney has experience dealing with your automaker, ask them how they managed previous cases.
- What’s the process of getting a lemon law buyback/replacement from this manufacturer?
- What are some of the biggest challenges in dealing with this manufacturer?
- How do you overcome them?
When you seek out a lemon law lawyer, experience with your particular vehicle manufacturer is going to be key. You need legal assistance that understands their tactics, warranty agreements, special clauses, etc.
- What are your top priorities as a lemon law firm?
You might get several answers to this simple question. Regardless of how the attorney phrases it, the answers should revolve around three factors:
- Speedy buyback/resolutions
- Consumer justice
- Getting every single penny you are owed from the manufacturer.
Auto manufacturers are among the biggest conglomerates in the country. No matter how you look at it, seeking justice for a lemon is a David versus Goliath scenario. The lemon law attorney you hire should exhibit a clear passion for standing up to industry giants and fighting for the common person.
- Do I have to pay any out of pocket costs or retainer fees?
This is another big one – and the answer will either be a good indicator of a trustworthy attorney, or a massive red flag to head for the door.
If a consumer has a legitimate lemon law claim, a trustworthy lawyer will understand that the consumer is in this predicament due to no fault of their own. Therefore, they shouldn’t charge you ANY out-of-pocket costs or retainer fees to take the case.
This is for two reasons:
- They won’t take a case unless they think they can win
- They know they should get paid by the manufacturer when they win.
The answer to this question confirms their top priority of providing speedy buybacks/resolutions to cases – as they don’t expect to get paid until the matter is settled.
- What’s the timeline to resolve a case?
Truth be told, there is no concrete answer to this. Lemon law cases all come with their own unique set of details, obstacles, and circumstances. No attorney can give you a guaranteed timeline to resolve a case. If they promise an end date in the initial consultation, this is a big red flag.
However, they should give you a hopeful goal of resolving the case in roughly 30 days. One of the biggest marks of a trustworthy attorney – lemon law or not – is they are cautiously optimistic. Additionally, they make it clear that the case is not over until the consumer has their money and the defective vehicle is back where it belongs, with the warrantor and off the street.
- How can I make things run smoothly?
This is a question that every lawyer wants to hear – and will immediately get you on his/her good side. The lemon law lawyer will likely explain:
- All the documentation you need to gather
- How to prepare for a claim
- The importance of responding to their messages quickly
- How to make sure you get the maximum compensation
The goal in a lemon law claim is to recoup every single penny that stemmed from your defective vehicle – and much of that depends on your involvement.
Filing a lemon law claim in California is not overly difficult – but it’s not exactly easy. While your lemon law attorney will do most of the heavy lifting, there are many key steps consumers need to manage before a lawyer comes into play.
In essence, many of the moves you make in the early stages of the process determine how the case is resolved. All too often, consumers come to us with a claim only to realize they made a fatal mistake in the beginning. That’s why we put this guide together to help consumers set themselves up for success.
The good news is you’re never alone in a lemon law case – no matter where you are in the process. You can always reach out to an attorney for questions.
If you’re experiencing problems with your new, used, or leased vehicle in California, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team at Cline APC. We’re always here to help steer consumers in the right direction – whether it be dealing with manufacturers, collecting proper documentation, or managing cases from start to end.