Lemon laws and car problems: are you protected?

“I just got a lemon.” You’ve probably heard of cars referred to this way, when one thing after another goes wrong. A lot of people don’t take advantage of the protections that may be available to them.

If you’ve experienced ongoing problems with your new car, your state may have laws that will provide significant protection and a resolution for your problems.

Why is a car with problems called a lemon?

No one origin of the term can be identified for sure, but it’s generally thought to be a metaphor for the bitter taste of a raw lemon. There was a midcentury phrase that referred to a person as lemon if they had a “tart” and unpleasant disposition. And there was an earlier phrase referring to handing someone a lemon and passing it off as gold… which could also be an inspiration for the term.

What can you do if it happens to you?

Lemon laws vary by state, but they generally offer a lot of protection for people who buy a car with more problems than are reasonable for a new car.

What constitutes a lemon?

There are a few situations that most states recognize as grounds for lemon law protection:

A problem—the same problem—that the dealer can’t fix, after repeated attempts.

A high number of different problems. If you have an oil leak, and then your power seats stop working, then your power steering fails, followed by the sunroof leaking, you may have a case. Even if each problem can be successfully repaired on the first try, if there are a lot of problems overall, it may be grounds for a lemon law claim.

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Catastrophic failure. Each of the above may be its own justification, but often the ultimate criterion—and the most effective way to quantify the overall impact of problems—is days out of service. If your car’s been at the dealer a certain number of days, or percentage of the time that you’ve owned it, you may qualify for lemon law protection.

Timeframe.  Lemon law statutes vary by state in terms of both time and mileage, but often it’s a four-year timeframe within which you’re protected.

In some cases, even when the bumper-to-bumper manufacturer’s warranty has run up, and a car is four or more years old, you might be protected under consumer laws like implied warranty. Implied warranty is a protection for when the explicit warranty has run up, but a failure that is completely unreasonable for the given timeframe occurs.

What do you need to do to pursue a lemon law claim?

First, you’ll want to contact a lawyer or firm that specializes in lemon law cases. One of the benefits of the lemon law in most states is that the cost of your legal representation is covered by the car manufacturer if you win the case. As a result, most law firms who handle these types of cases will represent you with the understanding that you won’t have to pay them anything. So they’ll only take your case if they believe it will be successful. These cases are pretty formulaic, so it’s pretty simple for them to tell upon an initial consultation whether your claim is worth pursuing, and that they’re likely to be successful.

Two of the key steps in the process are:

Give the dealer opportunities to resolve the problems. Take the car to the dealer’s service center with a clear explanation of the problem, and see if they can fix it once and for all.

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Documentation, document, document. This is the most important thing—you’ll need service paperwork from the dealer for each time you’ve taken the car in, and you’ll want to make sure that the problem and a general description of what they did to try to fix it are included for each visit. (It may be better not to actually tell your dealer that you’re pursuing a lemon law claim, but defer to your legal representation on that.)

The resolution

So what do you typically get, in a successful lemon law case?

The settlement in a case varies by your individual situation, and by state—but a settlement might include a total buyback of the car (sometimes including payments and interest already paid as well.) Or, the manufacturer may replace the car with a brand-new one—if you want to take a chance with the same make of car again.

The first step to take is always finding a lemon law attorney who handles these cases in your state, and schedule a consultation. They can answer your questions, advise as to whether they think you have a strong case, and how to proceed.

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