Defective Products

What are "lemon laws"?

Lemon laws are one of the federal consumer protection laws created to prevent fraud and the misrepresentation of the condition of cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, boats and other consumer products at the time of sale. While the lemon laws actually cover many types of products, most people refer to the lemon laws when they talk about either new or used vehicles still under warranty that cannot be properly repaired.

Lemon laws vary from state to state; therefore, you will need to know the laws in the jurisdiction in which you purchased the product you wish to return. Lemon laws will define what constitutes a product as being a "lemon" and will usually mandate that the manufacturer, not the dealer, assume responsibility.

What qualifies as a "lemon"?

In most states, in order to be categorized as a "lemon," the vehicle must have a substantial defect that occurred within a certain period of time after you bought it and that cannot be fixed after a reasonable number of repair attempts.

What is a "substantial defect"?

A substantial defect is a problem that impairs the vehicle's use, value or safety. Depending on the state law, the substantial defect must occur within a certain period of time (usually 1 or 2 years) or within a certain number of miles (usually 12,000 or 24,000).

What are "reasonable repair attempts"?

If the defect is a serious safety defect involving brakes or steering, it must remain unfixed after one repair attempt to qualify as a lemon. If the defect is not a serious safety defect, it must remain unfixed after three or four repair attempts depending on the particular law of the state. If the vehicle is in the shop a certain number of days (usually 30 days in a 1-year period), it may fit the definition of a lemon.

Do lemon laws apply to used cars?

All states have lemon laws that apply to new cars, but only a few states have lemon laws covering used cars. Under most of these laws, it is the dealer's responsibility to repair the car or refund the buyer's money if repair is unsuccessful.

My car is a lemon! What do I do now?

Every state gives the consumer a right to obtain a refund or replacement vehicle from the manufacturer if they are sold a lemon. How you go about receiving this relief will be dependent on the laws of your state. However, in all states, the consumer must first notify the manufacturer of the defect. If you are not offered a satisfactory settlement, most states require you to go to arbitration before going to court. The arbitrator will hear both sides of the dispute and make a decision, usually within 60 days after the hearing. If the arbitrator decides that your car is a lemon, you will be entitled to a refund or replacement.

Is there any way to prepare for arbitration?

Absolutely. Studies show that consumers who bring documentation and evidence to the arbitration hearing tend to do better than those who do not. The following types of documentation can help:

  • brochures and ads about the vehicle (the arbitration panel will likely make the manufacturer live up to its claims);
  • vehicle service records showing how often you took the car into the shop; and
  • other documents you may have that illustrate your attempts to get the dealer to repair your car, including old calendars and phone records.

I did not like the results of my arbitration. Can I sue?

Yes. The results of arbitration are often binding only on the manufacturer. If you do not like the result, you can always go to court.

What other laws protect car owners?

  • The Federal Anti-Tampering Odometer Law prohibits anyone from falsifying mileage readings in a car.
  • The Federal Used Car Law requires used car dealers to post buyers guides on used cars.
  • The Federal Automobile Information Disclosure Act requires new car dealerships to put a sticker on the windshield or side window of the car, listing the base price of the car, the options added and their costs, as well as the dealer's cost for transportation and the number of miles per gallon the car gets.

What is "strict liability"?

Strict liability is a legal doctrine that makes a person or persons responsible for damages their actions or products cause, regardless of any "fault" on their part. In strict product liability, anyone who is engaged in the stream of commerce of the product (from the manufacturer to the wholesaler to the retailer or all of them) can be held responsible if the product was defective and someone was injured. There is no need to prove negligence; the injured party must prove that the product was defective.

Can a product be defective because of an inadequate instruction manual?

If the manual failed to adequately warn the consumer of a hazard involved in the foreseeable use of the product, the product is defective. However, the manufacturer will not be held responsible when injury results from an unforeseeable use of its product.

Can a manufacturer disclaim liability for a defective product?

Disclaimers and waivers of liability for products are often invalidated by courts as against public policy. This is due to the belief that courts should not condone the manufacture and distribution of defective products. Moreover, courts find complete disclaimers unfair because the consumer is not in an equal bargaining position to the manufacturer.

What should I do if I am injured by a product?

  • Keep evidence of the defective product and the incident. This can include the parts of the product and pictures of the injury and the injury site.
  • Get the manufacturer's name and the serial number and model of the product
  • Keep a copy of the user's manual or other instructions that came with the product.
  • Document when the injury occurred and under what circumstances.
  • Keep a list of the names and addresses of all the doctors and hospitals treating you.
  • Call a lawyer.

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