Traded a Clunker for a Clunker? Lemon Laws to the Rescue!


So you made the plunge and traded in your gas-guzzling tank for an economically fuel-efficient, four-door sedan.  Good job, you squeaked in before the deadline to take advantage of the Cash for Clunkers rebate and save a little dinero. Unfortunately, for a select few all is not well in the land of automotive luxury. (Check out MainStreet’s complete clunker covereage)

What if your new purchase rattles around and is falling apart like a jalopy salvaged from a demolition derby. What happened?  I’m sorry to say but your new car, my unfortunate consumer, is a lemon. That’s right. Some estimates put the number of lemons bought back each year by manufacturers at around 100,000. So what do you do and what are your rights when you get stuck with a heap?

The good news is you are protected. For the most part, federal and state law gives consumers the ability to seek redress under what are commonly referred to as lemon law statutes. While federal law provides consumers with some protections, state-enacted lemon laws generally lay out the procedures and the remedies available in your state. All 50 states have lemon laws.

It is important to note that no two lemon laws are exactly alike. The specific rights guaranteed to car buyers will differ according to each state. Generally speaking, lemon laws provide car buyers a legal remedy if they report a defect covered by the manufacturer's express warranty within a specified time. The car manufacturer, or an authorized dealer, must make the repairs necessary to correct the problem.  If the defect is not fixed after a specified number of repair attempts, or the repairs cause the car to remain off the road for a specified period of time, the manufacturer must either replace the vehicle or issue the car buyer a refund. (Read about VW and Audi’s recent recall of some of their new cars)

Each state requires unique notification procedures and imposes different limitations. As a general rule, car buyers must notify the car manufacturer of the defect prior to asserting their rights under the law. By and large, most states call for notification within the first 18,000 miles or first two years of purchase, but the requirements vary widely so make sure you get your facts straight. Following proper notice, the manufacturer is given a reasonable opportunity to repair the defect. What is considered a “reasonable opportunity” varies by state. For example, New York and California require at least four repair attempts on the same defect to qualify as a lemon, where Ohio and Florida only require three.

What to do?

Look into the specific laws in your state. Find out what the proper procedures are to ensure you don’t relinquish your legal rights.  You can usually find the relevant information by visiting the website of your state’s attorney general, or by checking out lemon law databases on consumer group websites such as The Center for Auto Safety (

Report the defect immediately to the car manufacturer and/or car dealer. Remember, notification is a fundamental requirement in most lemon law statutes.  Also, keep detailed records and paperwork of all communications with the manufacturer or dealer and repairs on the car.

The manufacturer may still refuse to replace the defective car or provide you with a refund. Many states require that you engage in some type of dispute resolution, such as arbitration, before bringing a court action against the manufacturer.  If it comes to this, make sure you seek out proper legal advice to ensure you’re protected.  Some states offer additional remedies to plaintiffs who are successful at bringing a lawsuit against a manufacturer, such as awarding attorneys’ fees if the plaintiff prevails in his or her claim.

If you purchased a used car or leased a car that is a lemon you may still have options. Many states have expanded the definition of car buyer to include consumers of leased and used vehicles, as well as other buyers of other types of transportation such as motorcycles and boats. So make sure you fall within the law before you throw in the towel and say uncle.

Remember, the key to utilizing state lemon laws successfully will ultimately depend on your due diligence in keeping good and accurate records, providing immediate notice to the manufacturer, and following the right procedures of your state’s lemon law. Don’t get stuck with a piece of junk if you don’t have to!

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