By: Brett Shainfeld

When you buy a new car, you expect to reap the benefits that come with that purchase: fewer maintenance checks and repair issues, and less time spent in the repair shop. Not to mention a beautiful new car you can be proud of, especially if you’ve recently upgraded from an older vehicle that suffered from a lot of problems.

But sometimes, your new car doesn’t always work out the way you imagine it to. Instead of going months — or years — without putting your car in the shop, instead you find yourself there every other week. You’re caught in an endless loop of breakdowns, shop visits, repair bills, false security, and more breakdowns. It’s a nightmare no one wants to be trapped in after buying a new car, but unfortunately, it’s a reality for many Californians each year.

If this sounds like you, the bad news is that you likely bought a lemon. But there’s good news, too: If you purchased a lemon, you’re entitled to pursue a lemon law case against the manufacturer. And you may have a chance of getting a repurchase, a replacement vehicle, or at least getting some of your money back.

What’s the Lemon Law?

Each state has their own lemon law as an extension of the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which governs warranties on consumer products. Essentially, the Act provides protections to consumers who purchase defective or faulty goods that come with a warranty, whether it’s implied or expressed in writing. Under California Lemon Law, consumers are entitled to a replacement product or a refund — and they’re equally entitled to bring a lawsuit against a manufacturer that doesn’t willingly replace defective goods.

Though the Act — and individual state lemon laws — apply to more than just vehicles, it’s cars that most often get labeled as “lemons” when they don’t measure up. As mentioned, each state has its own lemon law. For California, it’s the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, and it details the lemon law presumptions you must meet before your car can be considered a lemon. These include:

  • During the vehicles first 18 months, or 18,000 miles on the odometer (whichever comes first), your car has:
  • Two or more repair attempts have been made by the manufacturer to repair a warranty problem that could result in death or serious injury; or
  • Four or more repair attempts have been made by the manufacturer to fix the same warranty problem; or
  • Been out of service for a cumulative 30 days or more due to warranty problems: and
  • The issues with the vehicle are not a result of abuse by the owner.

If your car meets any of the above criteria, you could have a lemon law suit on your hands. Under California lemon law, as a consumer you’re entitled to compensation for your faulty purchase, and manufacturers can repay you in a number of ways. These include: buying back the defective vehicle, replacing the car with a new one that functions properly, or offering you a cash settlement (that you can then use to purchase another vehicle).

Though it’s possible to contact a car’s manufacturer and work out the details of your compensation, it’s unlikely they’ll accept your car is a lemon without any problems. After all, right now the car is your problem — and they want to keep it that way. So most people have to settle lemon law cases one of two ways: through arbitration, or a lemon law suit.

Lemon Law Arbitration vs. a Lemon Law Suit

The lemon law arbitration process is different from a full lawsuit. In arbitration, a single person (or sometimes a panel) is appointed as an “arbiter” to determine whether or not you have a lemon and if the manufacturer owes you anything for your vehicle. You’ll discuss the requirements under California lemon law, and appoint a time for a hearing. After that, it’s up to you to gather as much evidence and as many witnesses as you can to help your case.

During the arbitration hearing, the arbiter has the power to determine which pieces of evidence, and which witnesses, are allowed to be presented for both parties. Once each side has made their case, the arbiter will determine if you do have a lemon and if you’re entitled to protections under California lemon law. They’ll also decide what compensation you’re entitled to. But if a lemon law case doesn’t go your way, you have limited options to appeal an arbitration decision.

In a lawsuit, you’ll hire an expert California lemon lawyer to help you gather evidence and present your case in court, like the typical court proceeding you’re more familiar with. You’d also have a chance to appeal a decision if it didn’t work out in your favor.

Manufacturers Want You To Arbitrate

The arbitration process is set up so that it seems easier and less expensive than taking a lemon law case to court. But in reality, arbitration often works more in the manufacturer’s favor than in yours. So your chances of winning a lemon law arbitration aren’t as good as you’d hope.

One reason arbitration is cheaper is that it doesn’t permit much “discovery” of evidence — meaning there’s no opportunity to force the other side to answer questions under oath or present documents the manufacturer doesn’t want you to know about. The burden of proof is on you to present evidence with little to no help from anyone else. Having less access to information almost always ends up hurting the consumer, and helping the manufacturer.

You also won’t have an expert lawyer to help you out, which also reduces your chances of winning a lemon law case. The manufacturer will have a dedicated specialist available to present their case, who will have years of knowledge and experience in helping them win lemon law cases. And with no prior experience or knowledge yourself, it’ll be more difficult for you to win.

While you may have saved all your receipts and documentation for repairs and car problems, it might not be enough to prove your vehicle is a lemon. Which is why a lawsuit can increase your chances of winning.

A Lawsuit Will Increase Your Chance of Winning a Lemon Law Case

Pursuing a lawsuit rather than settling for lemon law arbitration can help you get the money you deserve much faster. You’ll have an expert lawyer on your side who will be familiar with every aspect of presenting your case, and who will know all the ins and outs of California lemon law. They’ll know what evidence to present, who to talk to as witnesses, and which tricks the manufacturer is likely to play to help swing the case in their favor.

What Happens When You Win A Lemon Law Case?

Most people don’t know this, but if you win, the car manufacturer also has to pay all of your legal fees for presenting the case — making a lawsuit possibly much cheaper than the arbitration process. And while a lawsuit may be more time consuming, you aren’t the only party that will want to move things along at a faster pace. The car manufacturer will also be itching to get the process over with, which can work in your favor in a lemon lawsuit.

The manufacturer will have lower chances of winning if you take the case to court, and they’ll want to wrap things up as quickly as possible to lower the costs of paying your attorney and its own lemon lawyers. So you’ll often get a buyback or other settlement much faster if you take the case to court.

So while the lemon law arbitration process may seem more appealing in the beginning, be wary of any car manufacturer that tries to push you into choosing arbitration over a lawsuit. The arbitration process nearly always works out in their favor, and you could be stuck with a faulty car that’s dangerous to drive, and not at all worth the money you paid for it. Talking to an experienced lemon lawyer will give you a better understanding of how the lemon law works, and how it can be used in your favor to help you win your case. After all, the lemon laws were put into effect to protect consumers just like you.

What Is The Average Lemon Law Settlement In California?

Typically the winner of a lemon law settlement in California can expect to have the option of either a replacement vehicle or the cost associated with the vehicle reimbursed. What you should know is that the average settlement when it comes to a refund has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, you’ll usually be eligible to receive payment not just for the contract price of the vehicle, but also associated costs (such as sales tax, registration fees, etc.) as well as incidental costs (for example, rental car costs or repair fees). However, manufacturers are often able to argue for a mileage offset on the vehicle, which will reduce the amount of the refund using a calculation established under California lemon law. Furthermore, should you opt for a refund, understand that the process, on average, should not take more than thirty days to be completed.

If you’re looking for leverage in your lemon law claim, there are two primary ways that you can boost your case. The first is to document everything. This means service performed on the vehicle (with specific details about what was done), as well as conversations that you’ve had with the dealership or manufacturer concerning the issue. Retain dates, times, names, and any other information that you believe may be useful when it comes time to make a claim. The second thing that you can do is to hire an experienced lemon law attorney to stand on your side during the claims procedure. Not only will you benefit from their legal expertise, but the law in California further holds the manufacturer liable to cover attorney fees in these cases should your claim be accepted. This places a running clock on the manufacturer to come to terms of a settlement as quickly as possible to avoid further costs.

Find a Trusted Lemon Lawyer

If you have a lemon law case on your hands, you’ll want to work with a lawyer you can trust to see you get the compensation you deserve. The lawyers at Shainfeld Law have over a decade of experience in presenting — and winning — lemon law cases in California. You can contact us for a free consultation, where we’ll review your case and help you determine where you stand and provide any lemon law tips. Then we’ll fight for you every step of the way to make sure you get a buyback, new vehicle, or cash settlement from the manufacturer.

In the meantime, we have a robust library of lemon law resources, FAQs, and information that can help you better understand California lemon law and how you’re protected.