Fair or not, the term "used car salesman" has come to signify something close to a con artist. While this doesn't accurately represent the totality of the profession, in yesteryear, some secondhand cars were notoriously imperfect, and their glossed over mechanical issues tended to appear only after the consumer drove the vehicle home and discovered that they had purchased a lemon.
More recently, states have enacted "lemon laws" that can protect both new and used car purchasers. In some states, an agency is in charge of these issues, while in others, including Virginia's Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act, provide private causes of action for injured clients.
The Virginia law only covers used cars if the vehicle is still under warranty and is less than 18 months old.
Lemon Laws for Vehicles
Those purchasing used cars in Virginia may dream of driving the vehicle for another decade or two without experiencing any mechanical issues. But this is not likely to be the case, nor does the state of Virginia build this hope into its lemon law.
In fact, the state's Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act lemon law is directed toward new car purchases, not used car purchases at all, although the loose language of the statute has allowed some used car coverage.
"Lemon law" is the name given to any law that offers legal remedies to people who buy defective products, including automobiles. Generally, these laws help people who buy new vehicles that turn out to have serious problems, problems that show up relatively quickly after the purchase is completed.
Under Virginia's lemon law, the buyer may be eligible for help for a covered vehicle that was misrepresented or one that has issues that cannot be resolved within 18 months of the time the vehicle was purchased.
Virginia Lemon Law Coverage
Virginia new car buyers can rely on the law to provide protection from unfair vehicle warranties and to hold manufacturers accountable for their products. The act is one of the few state lemon laws in the nation that covers leased vehicles as well as purchased vehicles.
It also has the great advantage of allowing the consumer to collect their attorney's fees from the manufacturer if they are required to get legal help to get reimbursement for a lemon.
Qualifying as a Lemon Vehicle
Not every unsatisfactory vehicle will be classified as a lemon for purposes of the Virginia law. To qualify as a lemon, the vehicle must have experienced issues within the first 18 months of purchase.
The car dealer must have tried to repair it three times without fixing the problem, or one time for a serious safety defect. Alternatively, it must have been out of service for at least 30 days.
If one of these circumstances occurs to a vehicle purchased in Virginia, or the vehicle fails to live up to the warranties made about the vehicle, the buyer is entitled to one of two remedies from the manufacturer: a replacement vehicle or a refund of the purchase price, less a reasonable amount for use of the vehicle.
Extension Beyond First Owner Possible
Generally, recourse under the act is only available to the first owner or lessee. However, the language of the statute referring to warranties is broad enough to extend coverage to used vehicles still under warranty.
What Is a Warranty Under the Virginia Law?
A warranty is broadly defined under Virginia Law. This is important since the teeth of the law are contained in Section 59.1-207.13, nonconformity of motor vehicles.
The law provides that if the manufacturer, its agents or authorized dealers do not conform the motor vehicle to any applicable warranty by repairing or correcting any defect or condition, including those that do not affect the driveability of the vehicle, which significantly impairs the use, market value or safety of the motor vehicle to the consumer after a reasonable number of attempts during the lemon law rights period, the manufacturer shall:
- Replace the motor vehicle with a comparable motor vehicle acceptable to the consumer, or
- Accept return of the motor vehicle and refund to the consumer, lessor and any lien holder as their interest may appear, the full contract price, including all collateral charges, incidental damages, less a reasonable allowance for the consumer's use of the vehicle up to the date of the first notice of nonconformity that is given to the manufacturer, its agents or authorized dealer.
This law must be interpreted by the courts using the Definitions section of the law, which defines the term "warranty" very broadly to include written warranties and implied warranties, as well as:
"Any affirmations of fact or promise made by the manufacturer in connection with the sale or lease of a motor vehicle that become part of the basis of the bargain. The term "warranty" pertains to the obligations of the manufacturer in relation to materials, workmanship, and fitness of a motor vehicle for ordinary use or reasonable intended purposes throughout the duration of the lemon law rights period as defined under this section."
Application to Used Vehicles
While not every used car issue in the state of Virginia will be covered by the broad warranty definition, some are. For example, the Virginia Consumer Protection Act protects used car buyers from purchasing a vehicle when the vehicle's history has been misrepresented.
When a vehicle has been previously damaged in a wreck, that fact must be disclosed by the seller even if sold "as is."
Misrepresentations by Dealership
If a motor vehicle dealer talks a car buyer into purchasing a vehicle based on a misrepresentations of the facts, these representations constitute affirmations of fact or promise made by the manufacturer in connection with the sale or lease of a motor vehicle that become part of the basis of the bargain.
That means that these are part of the warranty for the car under Virginia lemon laws, and the buyer may be entitled to recover the full value of the sale after learning of a car's previous history.
Enforcing the Virginia Lemon Law
The Virginia Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act offers rights to a car buyer, but those rights are not protected by a state agency. No department of Virginia state government is charged with taking dealers or manufacturers to court for failure to meet the conditions of the law.
Rather, the law provides rights that must be enforced by the private action of the consumer. It provides:
"Any consumer who suffers loss by reason of a violation of any provision of this chapter may bring a civil action to enforce such provision. Any consumer who is successful in such an action or any defendant in any frivolous action brought by a consumer shall recover reasonable attorney's fees, expert witness fees and court costs incurred by bringing such actions."
Enforcement of the Lemon Law
It's up to the car buyer to enforce the law. They must bring the car in for repair—up to three times—within 18 months after buying it. If the repair attempts are not successful, they must return it for a refund or for a replacement vehicle.
The car is classified as a lemon if it has been repaired three times or more or if it has been repaired once for a serious safety defect. If this is the case, and the seller refuses to comply with the law, the buyer can sue in state court to recover damages for the sales price of the car, along with the money the customer paid for repairs and reasonable attorney fees they incurred in bringing the action.
Federal Laws Regarding Used Motor Vehicles
If a used car buyer in Virginia finds undisclosed issues with their vehicle within a short period of time of the purchase, they may be able to seek a remedy under federal law. For example, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) provides that any used car purchased automatically includes an implied warranty that the car is fit for transportation, although an “as-is” designated sale overrides the implied warranty.
Likewise, the Federal Trade Commission's Used Car Rule mandates that dealers who sell five or more cars during a year must post a buyer’s guide in each vehicle sold, providing information about the risks associated with buying a used car. Failure to do that may give the buyer a legal claim.
Finally, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, the federal lemon law, requires that a dealer selling a used vehicle with an express written warranty cannot disclaim an implied warranty.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. 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 MA and an MFA in English/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.