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  1. What did you buy (or lease)?

  2. Where did you buy it? When? How much did you pay?

  3. What issues occurred? How many repairs occurred? How many days out-of-service total?

  4. Have you already demanded a refund or replacement?

An Overview of California Consumer "Lemon" Law
by Ariel Rief, Esq. 

California Lemon Law / Consumer Warranty Law


California consumer warranty law, known as “lemon law,” provides protections for consumers who've purchased defective goods—and thus a sour deal—that are still under the manufacturer’s warranties. The law stems from the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (California Civil Code sections 1790-1795.5), which allows consumers to sue manufacturers when they fail to repair or replace their lemon.

In this article I'll discuss the following:

1. Lemon Law Applies to More Than Cars

2. Why Lawyers Have to Get Involved

3. No Attorney's Fees Unless You Win

4. Is Your Case Strong and Worth It?

   4.1.  The 5 Critical Questions to Ask Yourself

5. Sue the Manufacturers, Not the Dealers

6. Breach of Express Warranty vs. Breach of Implied Warranty

7. Conclusion

1. Lemon Law Applies to More Than Cars

Lemon law applies to all kinds of consumer goods—home appliances, electronics, RVs, boats, musical instruments, air conditioners, etc. (you name it!). Whatever you purchased, if there’s a serious enough issue and it’s covered by a warranty, then the lemon law provides that manufacturers get a reasonable number of attempts to repair the defect. What's considered reasonable depends—the more serious the issues, the less repair attempts and time they get. Ultimately, when manufacturers fail to repair the defect within a reasonable timeframe, they must promptly provide consumers a refund or replacement.

2. Why Lawyers Have to Get Involved

The law sounds simple, right? Well, it’s more complicated than it seems. Manufacturers generally dispute whether their product is defective in the first place. When they acknowledge there’s an issue, they dispute whether it’s serious enough or claim it has been fixed. Even when there’s no dispute that a substantial issue exists, they claim that they have not yet received a reasonable opportunity to repair the defect.

There are decades' worth of lemon law cases. The legal analysis is not black and white; there’s plenty of grey area for lawyers to make arguments on both sides. A lot of these cases have gone to trial and continue to be litigated through trial, which is why lawyers are needed.

You may not need a lawyer, however, if you have “slam dunk” facts supporting your case. For example, let’s say your brand new car experienced six serious transmission-related issues and was out-of-service for a total of over 90 days in the first six months. But most cases are not as straightforward as this example.

Even if your case is strong, the manufacturer—generally a massive corporation—is rarely quick to agree. Without lawyers involved, manufacturers lack the financial incentive to cave to consumers—particularly for expensive goods like cars and trucks. Their seemingly endless resources can bury most folks who try to do it alone.

It’s also worth noting that courts, in general, are pro-business as an overall policy objective. When manufacturers are forced under the lemon law to repair or replace big ticket items, like cars, that’s not exactly good for business. Most judges are not quick to make decisions that they perceive as jamming up the wheels of a growing economy. And do not underestimate the powerful lobbying efforts and large campaign contributions flowing from the manufacturers and auto dealers to politicians and local judges that shape policy surrounding consumer cases.

3. No Attorney's Fees Unless We Win

With all the above said, consumer protection laws exist for a reason. And if you have a strong case, you need to fight to not allow these giant companies to get away with taking advantage of consumers. And don’t worry: the economy will not tank because of your individual case. Ultimately, to achieve a refund or replacement for your lemon, lawsuits are unfortunately necessary. But how is the Average Joe consumer supposed to afford litigation against massive corporations? Fortunately, the lemon law provides that manufacturers must pay your attorney's fees and costs if you prevail in your lawsuit. That means you can fight your case with a lawyer and without a massive bill hanging over your head.

4. Is Your Case Strong and Worth It?

The main question in most cases is whether you gave the manufacturer a reasonable number of repair attempts and they failed to fix the defect. That is, a defective product is not a “lemon” and therefore subject to lemon law protection unless you’ve given the manufacturer an opportunity to repair the defect and they’ve failed to repair the issue within a reasonable timeframe. The more serious the defect, the less repair attempts they get. For example, if your new vehicle's brakes are malfunctioning and thus can kill you, and they’re still malfunctioning after two times in the shop for repairs, that’s should be enough proof for a lawsuit. But, if you're experiencing something less potentially catastrophic, you'll need to show more times in at the shop. Generally, when less dangerous issues occur, at least four times in the shop or at least 30 days out-of-service total must be shown.

The most important items of evidence, at least initially, are the repair invoices documenting the dates your consumer product was serviced and the work that was completed. In the meantime, however, ask yourself the following questions below. Answering "yes" to each question means you probably have a claim under the lemon law. If you answer "no" to any question, that doesn't necessarily mean you're out of luck—you may, for instance, have a separate lemon law claim for breach of an implied warranty, which I’ll explain later.

    4.1. The Critical 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Did you purchase (or lease) a consumer good (a vehicle, home appliance, etc.) for your personal or family use?

  2. Did the manufacturer give an express warranty? (Check the owner’s manual.)

  3. Did the consumer good contain a defect covered by the warranty that substantially impaired its use, value, or safety?

  4. Did you deliver the consumer good to the manufacturer or dealer for repairs (in other words, not to some random repair shop)?

  5. Did the defect still exist despite the manufacturer or dealer having had a reasonable number of repair attempts? (Alternatively, even if they fixed it, did they do so in a reasonable time period?)

Technically, there’s also a 6th question to ask, which is whether the manufacturer or dealer failed to promptly buy back or replace the good. But I imagine your answer to that question is at least YES or else you wouldn't be online researching lemon law.

5. Sue the Manufacturers, Not the Dealer or Retailers

​Most people think that in lemon law you sue the dealership or retailer that sold the defective good. In reality, dealers and retailers are the middlemen; they don’t generally offer express warranties like the manufacturers who made the product.

Extended Warranties are Different

Dealerships and retailers often offer extended warranties on consumer goods sold. Their use of the word “warranty” often confuses consumers. Extended warranties are simply separate contracts with a retailer. You’re entitled to whatever promises are made within that written contract. If the dealership or retailer breach the terms of contract, one would look to sue under principles of contract law rather than lemon law.

6. The Main Claim: Breach of Express Warranty

There are two main lemon law claims: breach of express warranty and breach of implied warranty. Express warranties are written—generally, they’re listed in your owner’s manual or warranty book. The lemon law applies to almost any consumer product with an express warranty. When new cars, for example, come with a 3 year / 36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper limited warranty or a 5 year / 60,000 powertrain warranty, it's advertised and written down in multiple places such as the owner's manual and online at the manufacturer's website.  

Importantly, an express warranty is NOT a guarantee that the consumer good will be problem-free. Rather, it's only a guarantee that the manufacturer will make all necessary repairs when problems occur. If the defects are covered by a warranty, an authorized local repair facility (most typically the dealership in the context of vehicles), will make the repairs on behalf of the manufacturer. They get a reasonable number of attempts, or a reasonable amount of time, to fix the defects. When they fail, the consumer good should be branded a “lemon.” At that point, you can legally demand for your money back or a replacement. When manufacturers fail to promptly honor this simple principle, legal action becomes necessary. 

    6.1. Breach of Implied Warranty 

Consumer goods also come with implied (non-written) warranties—most commonly, the implied warranty that the goods are merchantable. Although related to breach of express warranty claims and part of umbrella of lemon law, a claim for breach of implied warranty (of merchantability) is different. Most significantly, you do not need to prove the manufacturer had multiple repair opportunities. If your brand new vehicle spontaneously combusted into flames and was destroyed, there would be no repairs to be done. With no repair attempts, does that mean you don't have a lemon law claim? Of course not; that would be ridiculous. Here, you would have a very strong lemon law case under a breach of implied warranty theory. 

7. Conclusion

In the end, of course the best way to determine whether you may have a valid case is to simply contact a lawyer, who shouldn’t charge anything for a consultation. That’s one of the great things about consumer cases. So if you bought a defective product and the manufacturer or dealer isn’t fixing the problem within a reasonable time period, then you have nothing to lose by having a lawyer step in to fight for you.

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