My Car Quest

February 28, 2020

My Experience With The California Lemon Law

by Mike Gulett –

The California Lemon Law is intended to protect customers from defective and unrepairable vehicles that are still under the original manufactures warranty. Subsequent owners to the original owner are protected as well as long as the original manufactures warranty is valid. It is important to note that the manufacture is the responsible party and not the dealer. Sometimes the dealer can help resolve the dispute as you will see in the second case below.

Other US states and other countries may have similar laws but this article today is only about the California Lemon Law because that is all I know and it reflects my experience.

Below I describe two cases where I have asked for my money back from two well known car manufactures. I am not identifying these manufactures and simply calling the vehicles “Car No. 1” and “Car No. 2”.

Below is an Overview of the California Lemon Law – From the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

The California Lemon Law requires a vehicle manufacturer that is unable to repair a vehicle to conform to the manufacturer’s express warranty after a reasonable number of repair attempts to replace or repurchase the vehicle.

Although there is no set number for “reasonable repair attempts,” California’s Lemon Law Presumption contains guidelines for determining when a “reasonable number” of repair attempts have been made.

The California Lemon Law covers the following new and used vehicles sold or leased in California that come with the manufacturer’s new vehicle warranty:

• Cars, pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs.
• The chassis, chassis cab, and drivetrain of a motorhome.
• Dealer-owned vehicles and demonstrators.
• Many vehicles purchased or leased primarily for business use.
• Vehicles purchased or leased for personal, family, or household purposes.

The California Lemon Law applies throughout the duration of the vehicle manufacturer’s original warranty period. Consult your vehicle manufacturer’s warranty manual for warranty periods pertaining to your vehicle.

The repurchase of the vehicle includes refunding all money spent on the car including actual purchase price, sales tax and license fees. There can be a reduction in this amount based on the miles driven, or value received by the owner.

Below are summaries of my experience with two different manufacturers. Both of these cars were luxury 4-door sedans which I bought new.

Car No. 1

This car was originally bought new for my wife as her daily driver in 2001. Unfortunately in the first few weeks she experienced engine failure which required a tow truck to haul the car to the dealer for repair. After the second failure she tossed me the keys and said “here it is you car now”. We do not expect a new car to ever leave us in need of a tow truck.

So in an effort to keep peace in the family I accepted it as my daily driver because I had selected this car for her. I drove it for more than one year without any problems. Then one day I had the same failure she had experienced. The engine felt like all the cylinders were not working and it seemed like I would not make it home. I had it towed to the dealer for repair (now this was the third time for this failure).

California Lemon Law

The dealer “repaired” it and after picking it up I experienced the same failure on the way home! I barely made it home and needed another tow truck to haul it back to the dealer. They “repaired” it again and I was able to drive it home successfully. This was the fourth failure for this defect.

After some thought and research I decided that I had a “lemon” and I wanted my money back. I contacted a lawyer who spent all of her work time on California Lemon Law cases so I figured she knew what she was doing.

She investigated my situation in detail. I sent her the services records and explained the situation over the phone. I had to convince her that I had a serious case because she only takes cases that she believes she will win.

She took the case and we signed an agreement where I agreed to pay her a small retainer fee and another fee after we won the case. The manufacturer also pays a fee to the lawyer after the case is over, which in my case was the same amount as I paid.

Her approach on all her cases is to go directly to the manufacturer and not take it to court. This approach works because the legal departments of these manufacturers know her reputation – she only accepts cases she will win. This approach of avoiding the court system saves money too.

Her first advice to me was to park the car and not drive it. She opened a case with the manufacturer and they wanted to inspect the car at the dealer. The lawyer would have preferred that the car was still not functioning with the engine defect but she was convinced after my experience that even though the car was working properly now I had no confidence that I could successfully drive it without the aid of another tow truck.

I took it to the dealer for an inspection of the engine problem and as advised by the lawyer I watched the entire inspection by the dealer technician in person. He did show me where there was an error on the computer analysis.

It wasn’t long after that that we were negotiating with the manufacturer for a repurchase of the car. They wanted to replace it but I insisted on a refund so I could then decided what to do next. They agreed and I received a refund of the purchase price (with a small deduction because I had driven it a few thousand miles in the two years or so of ownership), sales tax and two years of registration fees.

The manufacturer had the chance to repair the car and sell it as a used car to someone else and get some of their money back. Because this was all done outside the court system I believe the manufacturer was not required to brand the car as a California Lemon Law car.

I was happy to see the end of that car and I was very happy with the outcome.

Car No. 2

Car No. 2 is a different story because I am a big fan of this manufacturer. I traded in a different model made by this same manufacturer on Car No. 2, a luxury 4-door sedan, in 2007.

The issue began right away, although it did not require a tow truck it was a problem we do not expect from a luxury car, or any modern car.

When the wheels were cold, driving first thing in the morning, the rear wheels would vibrate causing a rough ride for 15 minutes or so until they were warmed up and then the ride was smooth and normal. This was not as serious as the problem with Car No. 1 but it was serious enough to motivate me to do something.

The wheels were an option upgrade and were a larger diameter than the standard wheels. This car came from the factory with these wheels as an expensive option and they were listed on the window sticker.

After several attempts by the dealer to address this problem with no solution I wanted this car to be bought back by the manufacturer. I decided that I would handle this myself without a lawyer and with the aid of the dealer who certainly wanted to sell me another car.

The dealer arranged for a factory representative to fly over from Europe to inspect my car and try to resolve this matter. This factory rep and the dealer service manager came to my home at 8AM one morning so we could take a drive when the wheels were at their coldest. The service manager rode in the back seat and the manufacture rep was in the front passenger seat and both clearly felt the vibration with the service manager making statements about how rough the ride was. I made it clear to the factory rep that I was likely to be a customer of his company in the future but I wanted this problem solved now.

The manufacture rep did not have a solution then but he went back to the factory to discuss it with engineering. Their thought was that somehow the larger diameter wheels were the problem, even though they could not find a problem with these specific wheels. The proposed solution from the factory was to replace my wheels with the standard smaller diameter wheels.

My response was something like this, “no, I bought this car with these wheels from the factory, they are listed on the window sticker and are part of the car and if they don’t work then buy the car back.”

Soon thereafter the dealer contacted me with a proposal to trade this car, where I would receive full purchase price plus tax and license, for another model that I could specify. I liked this idea and specified a car that they found on a boat on the way to the US East Coast. The manufacturer redirected this car to me in California where I received 100% of my investment in Car. No. 2 as trade in value and paid a reasonable price for the new car.

I was happy, the dealer was happy and I think the manufacturer was happy too. I drove this new car for many years and continue to be a positive supporter of this brand.

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There you have it – my two experiences convincing manufacturers to buy back cars that had unrepairable defects. This is probably only possible with the threat of the California Lemon Law (or a similar law) providing an ultimate protection for customers.

Have you had an experience with a Lemon Law? Let us know what you think in the Comments.

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California Lemon Law

Summary
My Experience With The California Lemon Law
Article Name
My Experience With The California Lemon Law
Description
My experience negotiating the buy back of two cars using the threat of the California Lemon Law.
Author

Comments

  1. Mark Babbitt says

    Mike,

    It’s good to hear that both of your experiences turned out favorably for you. I know firsthand that is not always the case.
    As a former Service Manager for several different manufacturers, I have been involved in several Lemon Law cases in a few different states in the Northeast, with a couple of cases going through the local or state Better Business Bureau.

    I have always been an advocate for person who owns the vehicle, unless I know that that person is not being honest or reasonable. I have always been an advocate for the dealer by making certain that trained technicians perform repairs and services properly and that they are documented properly. I’m certain there are cases out there where the dealers had to pay to replace a vehicle because they did not perform their duties properly.

    My first experience was in Connecticut. The law in that state allowed the owner(s) of the vehicle to have a board decide the outcome. The board consisted of a lawyer, certified by the state, to act as the mediator, a panel of independent people (I believe there were 8), chosen from a state approved pool by the owner(s) of the vehicle, a technical expert (also chosen from a state approved pool of experts), chosen by the owner(s) of the vehicle. The owners chose a panel of all women and a technical expert, who had no technical expertise in fuel injection, which the car was equipped with. I was present with the manufacturer’s District Service Representative.

    Without going into too much detail, the owners came well rehearsed by someone. The wife gave a dramatic and emotional testimony that, literally, brought tears to the eyes of the all woman panel they had chosen. The District Service Rep was ready to concede, even though the thoroughly documented repair orders clearly showed no evidence of the malfunction the owners claimed, as I testified to. In my summation, I posed a question to the owners that ultimately ended in favor of the manufacturer.
    During my preparation for the case, I discovered that the owners had visited another nearby dealer, of the same brand, not to have that dealer attempt to “fix the problem”, but attempted to have that dealer buy the vehicle outright because it wasn’t what they wanted. Once I posed that question as to why would the owners do such a thing, and that I had the sworn testimony of the Sales Manager from that dealer that the incident did occur, the lawyer found in favor of the manufacturer.

    I also have one other incident worth noting as well. I had a customer with a performance car that caught fire as a result of a defective automatic transmission line fitting that failed and leaked transmission fluid onto the exhaust manifold. The owner was able, on his own, to get under the hood and extinguish the fire. Minimal damage occured to the engine compartment and the paint on the hood. He had the vehicle a couple of months and put on a few thousand miles. He requested that the manufacturer purchase the vehicle back so he could buy the same model and cover his costs of taxes, document fees, etc. related to the purchase. The manufacturer did cover the cost of a rental while they dragged their feet to make a decision. After several calls for 4 months to their customer care department, having to constantly remind them of their “commitment” to their customer’s satisfaction, the fact that the state would not be involved in a Lemon Law case, and that now, the cost of the rental had exceeded the cost of repair, they finally stepped up and did the right thing for their customer. In the end, everybody won. Why the corporate bureaucracy dragged it out so long, is anybody’s guess.

    • Mark,

      Thank you for sharing your experiences from the point of view of someone who worked for a manufacturer/dealer. I can imagine that some car owners would try to take advantage of the lemon laws to get rid of a car they did not want at a higher price than market value.

  2. wallace wyss says

    Did you use the Power of the Press? I think automakers sometimes respond more quickly if they think you can get the story out to many more. But yet Porsche has left many Porsche owners high and dry with that problem (intermediate shaft?). I am surprised the car magazines don’t talk about it–I guess they don’t want to lose their car ads.

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