What Is the California Lemon Law?

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What's that funny noise in the engine? Why are the brakes not working? Car problems are those awful, frustrating bumps in the road that most of us would like to avoid. In fact, many people purchase new vehicles and pay the extra cost precisely to avoid worries about breakdowns and mechanical problems and also to be sure that they and their families are safe in the vehicle. That's why it's even more irritating when a brand new car or one under warranty turns out to be a lemon, requiring costly repairs or repeated visits to the dealer for service.

What Is the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act?

If you live in California, you can turn to the California lemon law, officially known as the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, enacted in 1970. This law protects California car buyers from warranty defects that the dealer or manufacturer can’t or won't repair within a reasonable time. Under the lemon laws, you might be entitled to exchange your new car for one that works or get a full refund for your vehicle. The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act requires manufacturers to repurchase or replace faulty products that they fail to fix after a reasonable number of repair attempts. Most people think of the California lemon law as applying just to vehicles, but that is not true. It applies to many products purchased by consumers, not just cars.

What's the California Lemon Law?

The day you finally buy that brand new, shiny car, you have a feeling that it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But as the days go by, one problem after another can surface, or the same problem surfaces repeatedly, and the vehicle heads back to the shop. When your new "friend" is spending more time with the mechanic than it spends with you, you come to the realization that you have purchased a lemon.

That's when it helps to live in a state with a lemon law, like California. Lemon law is the name given to any law that offers legal remedies to people who buy defective products, including automobiles. Generally, lemon laws help people who buy new vehicles that turn out to have serious problems that show up relatively quickly after the purchase is completed. Under California's lemon law, you are eligible for help if bad things happen to a covered vehicle within 18 months of the time you get the vehicle, or within 18,000 miles on the odometer. Many different types of vehicles are covered.

Does a Used Car Qualify for Lemon Law Protection?

Under California law, brand new cars are not the only vehicles that may qualify for lemon law protection. The law embraces a wide swathe of vehicles, even some that are bought outside of California. First, lemon law protections can apply to most vehicles you buy or lease in the state as long as they are still covered by a manufacturer’s new car warranty. And if you are in the Armed Forces, you get extra protection. If you are stationed in California, or if you are a resident of California, the California lemon law protects you even if you bought the car out-of-state or register it outside the state.

Does a used car qualify for lemon law protection? Maybe. A used vehicle falls within the protection of the California lemon law if it is still under a manufacturer’s new car warranty when you buy it and when the problems arise. The vehicle doesn't have to be covered for years to come. It is protected if any time remains on the warranty, even if it's only covered for another few weeks.

The California lemon law covers more types of vehicles than simply personal cars. Its application extends to new and used cars, pickup trucks, many types of vans and SUVs, as well as covers the chassis, chassis cab and drivetrain of a motor home. It also covers dealer-owned vehicles, demonstrator cars and vehicles purchased or leased primarily for business use. The key question is whether a vehicle is still covered by the manufacturer’s original warranty.

How Does a Car Qualify for the Lemon Law?

Lots of articles talk as if vehicle replacement or reimbursement is automatic under the California lemon law. That isn't the case. In fact, the Song-Beverly Act simply sets out presumptions. A court must presume that a vehicle is a lemon if any of the listed qualifying events happen within 18 months of the time you take delivery of the vehicle or 18,000 odometer miles, whichever comes first. What types of problems create this presumption? You can't squeeze a car in under lemon law protections in California with simply a flat tire or other similar common use issues. The problems you are experiencing with the vehicle have to be more serious and also must be covered by the warranty. So, what qualifies as a lemon car in California, entitled to legal protection?

The qualifying criteria relate to "reasonable" manufacturer attempts to fix a defect. If the manufacturer has made two attempts to repair a dangerous defect that could cause serious injury or death or four attempts to fix a less serious defect, the law presumes that the vehicle is a lemon. The presumption also applies if your vehicle has been out of service for more than 30 days total for warranty repair, or the warranty problems significantly reduce the vehicle’s use, value or safety.

What's a Lemon Law Buyback?

If your car qualifies as a lemon, the manufacturer has the responsibility to either replace the vehicle or refund the purchase price. The consumer gets to select and request which remedy she prefers. The repurchase option is also known as a lemon law buyback. The law gives the owner the legal muscle to enforce a buyback, but a replacement is only available if both the consumer and the manufacturer agree. Under this option, the car manufacturer buys back your vehicle, returning all of the money you paid for it, including any lease or loan balance. If you have put a substantial number of miles on the car, the manufacturer can charge a usage fee, calculated under a formula set out in the law. You simply turn the vehicle back to the agent, they return your money and the buyback is done.

The replacement option is the second available remedy. If you opt for a vehicle replacement, you can ask for it, but you aren't certain to get it. The law doesn't require either the consumer or the manufacturer to accept this remedy. Note that replacement is only a possible option for new vehicles, not used ones. You need to notify the manufacturer that you want a buyback or a replacement. You should send the letter as specified in your warranty if the warranty provides this requirement. Otherwise, send it via certified mail to the manufacturer at the address listed in your vehicle owner's manual.

How to Enforce the California Lemon Law

Since the California lemon law only creates a presumption that a car is a lemon, a manufacturer will often decline to buyback your car. If that happens to you, you may need to take legal action to enforce your rights. Fortunately, California law puts teeth into the enforcement options.

Under the lemon law, you can either hire an attorney to take the matter to court or else proceed to arbitration if the manufacturer has an arbitration program. Many manufacturers do offer arbitration programs and agree to be bound by them if the consumer agrees to the outcome. How to find out if there is an arbitration program? The first place to look is in the owner's manual, which should set out the procedure for arbitration, if there is one. If so, you'll need to get an application form and the manufacturer's arbitration program regulations. Alternatively, call the California Bureau of Automotive Repair Hotline at 800- 952-5210 to find out.

Is Arbitration Better Than Court?

Arbitration is an informal dispute resolution process. It is neither better than court nor is it worse. It is just different. Arbitration is a quicker, easier, less stressful process than court. In arbitration, a neutral person hears each party talk about the vehicle issues in a fairly low-key setting; then that person resolves the dispute by submitting a decision. Arbitration is free, and you don't need an attorney. In California, you can try arbitration risk-free since you are not bound by the decision, while manufacturers who offer an arbitration process are bound. However, there are downsides.

Even though arbitration is likely to take less time than a court procedure, it can still take a lot longer than you want it to. And the less-strict rules in arbitration both help you and hurt you. The process is less intimidating because you aren't held to attorney rules, but you won't be able to get the same kind of evidence exchange that you would with an attorney in court. If you do use an attorney for an arbitration procedure, you may not be awarded attorney fees.

Are you obligated to try arbitration first? In some cases. While many manufacturers offer an arbitration process in California, only some of them have certified programs. If your manufacturer has certified its arbitration program with the California Department of Consumer Affairs’ Arbitration Certification Program, you have to go through arbitration before you can take the matter to court.

An arbitrator is not like a mediator. Mediators work to get the parties to agree to a solution, but don't decide for them. An arbitrator hears both sides, then issues a decision. That decision can require a car replacement or a full refund. But the arbitrator can also deny your claim, find that the damage was caused by owner abuse or order that the manufacturer make another attempt at repairs.

What Is a Lemon Law Attorney?

If you don't want to go to arbitration or you decline to accept the arbitration decision, you will need to go to court to get your rights enforced. This means hiring an attorney. One of the big issues with proceeding to court in any matter is the cost. Attorneys often charge by the hour, and the hours add up quickly. But this issue may not be a concern in enforcing the California lemon law in court since California is a fee-shifting state. This means that the law provides that a consumer who takes a manufacturer to court and wins is entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees.

What does this mean? It means that you are likely to be able to find an attorney who will represent you in court and agree to seek attorney fees from the manufacturer, not you. You won't have to write a check to the lemon law attorney for fees and costs involved in the court fight with the automobile manufacturer, and the threat of having to pay these fees might be the pressure that will cause the manufacturer to resolve the matter to your satisfaction.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.