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Updated: May 16, 2002
California’s Lemon Law
Protection for new and used car buyers
A fact sheet on protection for new and used car buyers. It explains how the law works, which vehicles are covered, the arbitration programs used by most car dealers, and how consumers can pursue a lemon law claim in California.
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Table of Contents
The Lemon Law and your problem car
If you purchase or lease a car in California and then discover that it has defects that substantially affect its safety, use or value, state law may help you gain satisfaction from the vehicle's manufacturer. While the law cannot help everyone with a "lemon" (a problem car), and some people may have to hire an attorney to get their cases resolved, the law does create important rights for car buyers. This brochure provides basic information about how the law helps people get their cars repaired or replaced under warranty. (A warranty is a written guarantee that the vehicle is of good, sound quality.)
Even if the Lemon Law does not apply in your case, many other state and federal laws may protect you. These include laws that require truth-in-lending, prohibit deceptive practices and mandate that vehicles meet minimum safety standards. Most consumer laws provide for you to receive at least a refund and your attorney's fees.
The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act
The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (in the California Civil Code, beginning at section 1790) requires that, if a manufacturer or its representative is unable to repair a purchased or leased motor vehicle to conform to its written (express) warranty after a reasonable number of attempts, the manufacturer must promptly replace or repurchase it. (The manufacturer is allowed to deduct money only for miles you drove the vehicle before you took it to a repair shop because of the defect.)
To qualify for this protection, the vehicle must have been purchased or leased in California for personal, family or business use.
The Warranty Act protects you during the entire warranty period. If you buy a car with a five-year manufacturer's warranty, then you are protected for at least five years. This protection period can even be extended, because the time limit in which to bring a legal action for breach of warranty is four years from when the defect is first discovered. For example, if you discovered that your vehicle is defective four years into a five-year warranty, you have an additional four years (or eight years from the date of purchase) to take legal action.
If your vehicle is determined to be a lemon, you have the right to choose a refund instead of a replacement vehicle. You cannot be required by the manufacturer to accept a replacement vehicle instead of a refund. In addition, you may be able to get a refund for repair, towing and use of a rental vehicle.
Used cars and the Law
The Warranty Act also applies to used vehicles that are still under a manufacturer's new car warranty. When a used car covered by a new car warranty is sold, any remaining time left in the warranty protects the car's new owner. The law covers "certified" used cars (autos with quality guarantees sold by dealers or through manufacturers' programs), resold lemons (defective vehicles that are bought back by manufacturers or dealers and then resold) and autos covered by extended service contracts.
By California law, the first time a lemon buyback is resold at the retail level, it must have one-year factory warranty to cover defects and cannot legally be sold "as is." The law requires that the car's title state that it is a "lemon law buyback" and the car must have a "lemon" sticker on the door jamb. When lemon buybacks are illegally sold "as is," the buyer still has rights under the Lemon Law.
How to pursue your Lemon Law Rights
- To document your case, write a letter to the manufacturer outlining the problems you've had with the vehicle. Ask the manufacturer to "buy back" your car because it is a lemon. Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the manufacturer's address published in your vehicle's owner's manual. (Since January 2001, manufacturers are required to provide the address clearly and conspicuously in all new owner's manuals.) Even if the manufacturer has a customer service number, don't waste time by calling, because a letter is required to document your case.
- The manufacturer may decide to voluntarily buy your lemon back without any further action on your part. If the manufacturer gives you a hard time about buying back the lemon vehicle, you can hire an attorney or use the manufacturer's arbitration program, if it has one. (Arbitration is an informal alternative to a court trial that is widely used to settle disputes.)
- Check if the manufacturer has an arbitration program by looking in your owner's manual or calling the state Consumer Affairs hotline at (800) 952-5210. If you want to use arbitration, call to ask for an application form and a copy of the arbitration program's rules, so you will understand the process that will be used in deciding your case.
- Gather all documents that can help prove your case—your warranty, repair orders, reports of inspections and technical service bulletins. Make copies and submit them to the arbitration panel. The arbitration program must give you a hearing date withing 40 days. It is a good idea to go to the hearing to present your side. You may accept or reject the program's decision. If you accept, the manufacturer is bound by the decision and has 30 days to comply. There is no appeal process for the manufacturer. Don't be discouraged if you lose in arbitration—you can go to court to sue for a replacement or refund and most Lemon Law cases are settled in the consumer's favor.
- If the manufacturer does not have a certified arbitration program, or you prefer to pursue your Lemon Law rights in court, you can file a lawsuit. In this case, you will need to hire an attorney. If you win, you are entitled to be reimbursed for your attorney's fees, however many attorneys work on a "contingency" basis, which means you don't have to pay your legal fees up front. It is best to hire an attorney who is familiar with Lemon Law disputes or consumer warranty law, as well as one who represents only consumer—not auto company—interests.
The Lemon Law presumption
Any defect or condition that substantially impairs the use, value or safety of your vehicle under warranty, and that you have tried to have repaired by an authorized dealer, entitles you to seek a refund or replacement under the Lemon Law, even if the manufacturer continues to say it cannot find a problem. The law recognizes that if you purchased a new or quality guaranteed vehicle, you have the right to rely on its dependability and safety.
Manufacturers don't always want to fulfill their obligations under the Lemon Law, so California lawmakers added a special section to the Warranty Act—Civil Code section 1793.22 (b)—to give you guidelines in making a reasonable legal "presumption" that the manufacturer has had enough time or opportunity to repair your vehicle, but still did not fix it.
Just as an accused person is "presumed" innocent until proven guilty, you can presume that a new vehicle under warranty is a lemon if you can show that there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to repair it, or that the problem cannot be repaired.
If you meet any or all of the following guidelines, you have reasonable grounds to expect a refund or replacement under the Lemon Law:
- You have taken your vehicle to an authorized dealer four or more times about the same problem OR your vehicle has been out of service for 30 days or more because of any number of problems. (The 30 days do not have to be consecutive.) If the defect is likely to cause death or serious injury to you or your passengers if you drive the car, you can ask for a refund or replacement after only two unsuccessful repair attempts.
- As of January 2000, the four repair attempts or 30 days out of service have occurred within the first 18 months that you own your car or the first 18,000 miles, whichever happens first.
- The problems are covered by the warranty and substantially impair the use, value or safety of the vehicle.
You must directly notify the manufacturer about the problem in writing if you want to use the "four times" repair requirement and if the manufacturer requires such notification in the warranty materials or owner's manual.
The seller can challenge your presumption
Legal presumptions, by their nature, can be challenged and perhaps proven not to be true. If the manufacturer can prove that it has not had a reasonable opportunity to repair your car, you may not be entitled to a refund or a replacement vehicle. For example, if the manufacturer can prove that you abused the car, damaged it in an accident or made an alteration to the vehicle that voided the warranty, the Lemon Law may not help you.
If you plan to use the Lemon Law "presumption" guidelines as proof in your case and the manufacturer offers a certified arbitration program, you must use the arbitration program before you can pursue your Lemon Law rights in the courts. You cannot lose your right to go to court if you were not given written notice of the availability of the arbitration program. You may not be charged a fee for arbitration.
If you don't plan to use the Lemon Law presumption or if the manufacturer does not offer a certified arbitration program, you can file a lawsuit. In California, most lemon lawsuits are settled promptly, with consumers receiving a refund and reimbursement for their attorney's fees.
Are you unhappy with the Lemon Law ?
If you find that the lemon law is confusing, ineffectual or unhelpful in solving your complaint, consider letting your state Assemblyperson and Senator in Sacramento know about your feelings. These are the lawmakers responsible for the Lemon Law and they can change it to make it fairer and easier to use.
You can help improve the law by calling or writing your state representatives. Find their addresses and phone numbers in the State Government pages (under "Assembly" and "Senate") at the front of your white pages phone directory.
Please send a copy of your letter to Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), 926 J Street, Suite 523, Sacramento CA 95814. CARS, a consumer watchdog group, works to strengthen and preserve Lemon Laws.
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For More Information
- CARS provides information about California's Lemon Law on its web site (www.carconsumers.com). For assistance and referrals, call (530) 759-9440.
- You may obtain attorney referrals from the Center for Auto Safety, 2001 S St., NW, Washington, DC 20009, (202) 328-7700.
- Consumer Action provides consumer advice and referrals. Call (415) 777-9635, (213) 624-8327, TTY (415) 777-9456. Leave a message at any time and a counselor will call you back. Chinese, English, and Spanish are spoken.
- The National Association of Consumer Advocates website lists its member attorneys across the country by area of expertise.
- The Department of Consumer Affairs' Arbitration Certification Program (ACP) certifies and monitors third-party arbitration programs of participating automobile manufacturers.
This fact sheet gives you general information, not legal advice. If you have a lemon vehicle, talk to an attorney about how the law applies to your problem.
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