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Whenever people buy something, most of them pay considerable attention to quality and demand for the worth of the money they spent. Thus, for every amount spent, consumers expect that the product or service they bought will serve well the purpose to which it is intended. Consumers also expect that the products and services in the market have passed certain standards in terms of quality which were set by the government and/or accreditation institutions. However, in some cases, customers do not get their money’s worth, as the item or service they purchased is not as good as the manufacturer or service provider promised. Specifically, in the case of manufactured products, there are times when the item is defective, or it becomes easily worn out after using it for a few times. For such reason, laws have been enacted to protect the consumers from defects of the goods bought.
Specifically, in purchasing a vehicle, the consumers are protected from the defects that may be encountered after using it for several times. It is important to take into account the fact that cars cost a considerably huge amount of money. Hence, buyers deserve to be satisfied. For this reason, the lemon laws were enacted in different states to protect consumers.
The Emergence of Lemon Law
The principle of protecting the buyers or consumers has already been conceptualized as early as 1603 in England. Under the principle of caveat emptor or “let the buyer beware,” the importance of the trust of the buyer to the seller has been recognized (Taylor). However, the demand for refund or replacement was not fully expressed in the principle. In addition, the buyer cannot simply demand for replacement or refund unless he has proven two basic facts. First, the buyer should prove that the seller has knowledge about the defect, and second, the buyer should present an “explicit express warranty” of the goods bought (Taylor). It is only in establishing the said facts that the seller can be made liable.
The principle was first tried in the case of Chandelor v. Lopus (Taylor). In the said case, the petitioner (Chandelor) bought a stone from the defendant (Lopus) who was a goldsmith, and the latter claimed that the stone was a bezoar stone which had magical healing properties (Taylor). Later, the petitioner learned that the stone did not possess any healing properties at all; it was nothing more than a mere a stone. Hence, Chandelor instituted a case. In resolving the case, the court did not agree to the rescission. Instead, it stressed the responsibility of the buyer of his decision in buying the stone and believing it to be magical without an express warranty (Taylor). Merely saying that the stone was magical without an express warranty is not enough (Taylor).
The Spanish law of Louisiana by the Napoleonic Code also contributed to the developments in the protection of the consumer from defective products. The said law was incorporated in the Louisiana Civil Code of 1808 as “doctrine of redhibition” (Sweet 206). Under this doctrine, the buyer is bestowed with the right to demand from the seller for the refund of a fraction of the selling price when the product bought is defective and buyer would not have bought it if he was made aware of the defect (Sweet 206).
The case that best illustrates the principle of redhibition is that of Pilie v. Lalande decided on 1829 (Sweet 206). In this particular case, the petitioner bought a slave. However, he demanded the sale to be rescinded through a redhibitory suit because of the incompetence of the slave. At the end of the trial, Pilie was partially refunded for $170 (Sweet 206). In the principle of redhibition, the consumers are given the opportunity to demand for the refund or replacement of the goods that were bought but did not comply with standards and were defective after several repairs.
However, the law that specifically protects buyers of cars did not emerge until 1982 through Rosemary Shahan of Lemon Grove, California (Nikkel). The enactment of the law that protects car owners had its emancipation on 1979 when Shahan had an accident and brought the car to dealership for repair. After three months of waiting, the car was not yet fixed. For the following five months, Shahan picketed the dealership that incited ire among other consumers. Eventually, movement for laws to protect consumers was formed under the leadership of Shahan. The movement was later called “Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS)” (Nikkel). Hence, the first Lemon laws were passed in California and in Connecticut in 1982 (Nikkel). Through CARS, it was discovered that almost a million of car buyers ended up spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars for repair. Eventually, in 1993, all states enacted the Lemon laws, protecting the buyers and requiring the car manufacturers to refund or replace the car considered as “lemon” (Nikkel).
Problems with Vehicles In Relation to Lemon Laws
For consumers who belong to the lower and middle class, owning a car could be an immense dream, and the realization of the dream could bring bliss to the buyer. However, this happiness may turn into misery if the car bought always ends up in repair shops yet the defect or damage still persists. Among consumers, many problems on the vehicle they bought may arise, manifesting in different ways, and such problems may constitute a cause for a lemon law suit. Some of these problems include the following:
(1) bringing the car they bought to the repair shop repeatedly for the same defect;
(2) having the car repaired for almost a total of 30 days within the one year period;
(3) finding the car to be defective after more than six attempts of having it repaired;
(4) having brought the vehicle for repair under the warranty of manufacturer but the defect occurred again after the lapse of the warranty period;
(5) being denied of repair service even the warranty period is still on going; and
(6) being charged for service fee even if the service is covered by the warranty
In any of the cases aforestated, the buyer can institute a case under lemon law. However, understanding the whole process of the law is essential before a claim can be initiated (Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation [OCABR]).
Definition of Lemon Law
Basically, the lemon law is “a state law permitting the return of a defective product, usually a car, within a limited time period if there are substantial defects that cannot be fixed” (Oran and Tosti 283). A vehicle is regarded “as a lemon if a number of attempts have been made to repair the defect that have significantly impaired the use, value, or safety of a car and the car continues to have the same defect” (“State Lemon Law Summary”). Notably, the defect is said to have substantially impaired the value, value, or safety if the defect has been interfering with use of the vehicle, reducing the current value by at least 10%, or creating a potential or substantial danger to the occupants, to others, or to property, respectively (OCABR). Simply put, the law protects the consumers from buying cars which are believed to be in good condition but turns out to be in bad shape after a few miles or years of use.
In some states, however, lemon law does not cover used cars, while in some, the law covers all cars, regardless of whether they are new or leased. Although every state has a different lemon laws which govern cases of defective cars, these laws have similarities. The different lemon laws are common as they all define in the statute what constitutes a lemon car. In addition, all lemon laws basically demand care or repair of the defects from the manufacturer and not on dealers, which is a common mistake (“State Lemon Law Summary”). Moreover, lemon laws in each state provide a warranty right ranging from 12 up “to 24 months or 12,000 to 24,000 miles” (“State Lemon Law Summary”).
In order to be covered by lemon law, the defect should have been discovered or occurred during the said period or length of use. Furthermore, all state lemon laws have specifically provided the number of attempts to repair the car before it can be considered as a “lemon.” In most of the lemon statutes, the manufacturer is obligated to refund the amount or replace the vehicle if certain conditions have been met. One of these conditions states that, if the defect involves brakes and/or steering poses a serious threat to the passengers’ safety, then the manufacturer is given only one attempt to repair (“State Lemon Law Summary”). “For a safety defect which is not considered as a serious safety defect, the manufacturer has two attempts to repair” (“State Lemon Law Summary”). In case of other defects, the manufacturer has only three repair attempts. The last of these conditions covers vehicles which have been in the repair shop for a cumulative period of 30 days in one year, and one of those days have occurred within the 12,000 miles. In any of the aforementioned instances, the buyer can ask for a refund or replacement (“State Lemon Law Summary”).
In addition, most of the lemon laws permit an offsetting of the use of vehicle. Interestingly, half of the state lemon laws allow the consumers to recover attorney’s fees incurred in a lemon law action (“State Lemon Law Summary”).
Process for Lemon Law Action
On the point of view of the consumers, the lemon laws serve as a protector from fraudulent or defective a car which was believed to have been in good condition. Upon determining that the car is really a lemon, the buyer can legally file a suit under lemon law. However, the actual process of determining whether a car is a lemon or not is long and exhaustive. It is also important to note that most claims under lemon laws are most likely to be successful if they passed through a consumer complaint chain (Meard and Nerad 219). Definitely, the first step is to have the car fixed in the dealership service writer (Meard and Nerad 219). The process ends absolutely when the repair has been satisfactory. However, if the defect still occurs, the vehicle would be referred next to the service manager. Subsequently, the car is forwarded to dealer to make the necessary repair. If the vehicle is still defective, the vehicle is then brought to the second dealership service writer or service manage (Meard and Nerad 219). If the repair is still unsatisfactory, the consumer is advised to obtain service from an outside expert (Meard and Nerad 219). However, if the car is still defective despite the service from expert, the consumer can now forward the problem to the manufacturer zone office (Meard and Nerad 219). The next step would be to the regional office of the manufacturer in case the defect still occurs. If the problem reaches the manufacturer’s headquarters, the parties have to pass through a mediation process. The mediation process is followed by arbitration if settlement has been reached or finalized. It is only after all of the stated procedures are completed can the consumer avail of the lemon law legal action (Meard and Nerad 219).
In most of the lemon law cases, car owners have been found to have unfortunately lost the case because of simple technicalities. Since lemon law suits are likened to a fight of David and Goliath, the consumers are usually advised to take the suit seriously. In ensuring the success of the case, it is important for claimants to be aware of the small yet vital details of the process. Upon learning that the car is a lemon, the buyer should notify the manufacturer and its authorized dealer to make the necessary repairs (Irving and Nolo Firm 201). Moreover, the consumer must read and follow the details of notice contained in the lemon statute of the state where the claim is to be made. In addition, during the process of the repair, the buyer should keep a detailed record. Such record shall include repairs done by non- authorized dealers, number of repair attempts, time when car was out of service, list of specific problems, purchase contracts, warranties, and others (Irving and Nolo Firm 201) Likewise, it is helpful to obtain a repair order from the dealer. The repair order should contain the symptoms, repairs done, replaced parts, and time when the car was in shop. Basically, these are the processes that the consumer will undertake while in the process of determining whether the car is a lemon or not (Irving and Nolo Firm 201).
In some states, arbitration programs have been established to settle the problem instead of the buyer going directly to the manufacturer for claim of refund or replacement. Meanwhile, arbitration is the “informal resolution of a dispute without the need of going to court” (OCABR). There are several types of arbitration program that can be utilized by the buyer, namely: in-house programs run by automakers, “set up by the Better Business Bureau’s Auto Line (BBB), run by American Automobile Association (AAA) or National Automobile Dealer’s Association (NADA), and run through a state consumer protection agency” (Leonard and Lamb 33). In most cases, the buyers are not given the right to choose the program that would handle their claim. However, in cases where a preference has been granted, the buyer is advised to choose the program run by the government rather than those by BBB, AAA, or NADA (Leonard and Lamb 33).
During the arbitration, the arbitrator hears the argument of each party. Normally, the arbitrator is given 40 to 60 days to decide whether the buyer deserves a refund or replacement or not (Leonard and Lamb 34). Significantly, the buyer has higher propensity of winning if the evidence provided is enough to establish the claim. Some acceptable evidence may comprise of brochures and ads about the vehicles, service records stating the number of times that the vehicle had been in the shop, and other documents like calendars and phone call records about the repair of the car (Leonard and Lamb 34). Through proper documentation and accurate adherence to the process, the reasons for the buyer’s claim for replacement or refund would likely be accepted. Hence, the buyer should be vigilant as to the status, condition, and history of the car bought.
On the part of the manufacturer, the probability of winning the case could be based upon the offered defenses. One ground for defense could be that the defect was caused by the owner’s negligence, accident, unauthorized repair or modification, or vandalism (OCABR). Another ground for defense is that the defect was not covered by the law. In addition, the manufacturer may provide evidence to claim that the defect did not substantially impair the vehicle’s use, market value, or safety (OCABR). Finally, the manufacturer could argue that an opportunity for final repair was never offered to him.
According to research propounded by CARS, the number of lemon cars has increased to an estimate of 100,000 a year (Nikkel). The considerable increase could have been enough to incite a doubt as to the quality of the cars in the market. However, since cars are considered a necessity nowadays, cars cannot be swept out of the market. Instead, the lemon law should be intensified in order to compel the manufacturers to maintain and enhance the quality of the cars they manufacture.
As for the consumers, it would be helpful to be well informed about the existing state lemon statute. Moreover, when a defect has been experienced for the very first time, it is crucial to have the vehicle repaired without neglecting to give notices to the manufacturer and authorized dealers. Also, the repair order and all documents should be kept for documentation purposes. The repair order that should be demanded from the repair shop should contain information such as the repair history, car parts that have been changed, and other information and communication related to the vehicle. In addition, it is necessary for customers to be informed about the Technical Service Bulletins (TBS) given by manufacturers. TBS contains the instructions alerting the dealership of the defects and repairs to be done in certain models (“Lemon Law Advice from the Experts”). Furthermore, the buyer should not be misled or embarrassed about things that may be claimed by the dealership while making the repair. It is important to anticipate a lawsuit after a simple defect occurs. Likewise, a legal guidance would be appropriate, so that every detail necessary would not be missed. Vigilance is highly important in filing a lawsuit for a lemon car.
Car is one of the necessities in life. At the same time, it is also one of the luxuries that most people dream of. However, owning a car can be risky, as the car purchased may just turn out to be a lemon, causing inconveniences and troubles instead of enjoyment and satisfaction. Nevertheless, the buyer can seek protection from lemon laws.
Lemon laws are basically enacted to protect the interest of buyers from unexpected defects. After the lawsuit, the buyer may either get a refund or have his defective car replaced. The law has been proven to be beneficial and effective, but the process and burden upon the consumers in filing a lawsuit for a lemon car can be tedious. Nevertheless, protection and justice could not be achieved unless consumers comply with their responsibility with the car. To reiterate, a lemon lawsuit can be a tough fight for the claimant. However, the claimant may lose the chance to win the case if the evidences are not well documented and completed and if the processes have not been complied with.
As for the buyers, when a car defect has been encountered for the very first time, a lawsuit under lemon law should be anticipated. As such, the buyer should keep records of the necessary documents that will prove that the car was defective and was not caused by the owner’s negligence or accident. Significantly, it should be established that the defect was detrimental to the car’s use and value and the passengers’ safety, and as a result, the car can no longer be used. Having established the protection afforded by lemon laws, it is necessary for buyers to be well-informed about the law. Finally, the buyer should be aware of the requisites that may strongly justify a claim of refund or replacement in the future.
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