By: Brett Shainfeld

Few purchases outweigh the excitement of buying a new car. After months and months of preparation — both financially and mentally — you finally head to the dealership to begin the process of buying the next car of your dreams. It’s a full-day adventure, and the hope is you’ll head home in a car that will last for years to come.

But sometimes “years to come” isn’t quite the reality.

So what exactly is the California lemon law? Imagine that, after the new-car excitement wears off, you begin to notice some things that feel a little off with the car. Maybe it’s a noticeable hesitation every time you turn the car on, or maybe the stereo shuts itself off whenever you try to tune the radio. Or maybe it’s something even more serious, such as the power steering or anti-lock brakes not functioning properly. No matter what the problem is, one thing is clear: the car isn’t what you were expecting.

This is the case for nearly 100,000 people who purchase a car each year. Though purchased in hopes of being good, reliable vehicles, these cars instead fall under the lemon car definition.

Today, “lemon” is a term that’s tied closely to the automobile industry. If you’ve ever purchased a new car or known someone else who has, you’ve probably heard the term thrown around in some capacity. What’s the lemon law and why is it related to newly purchased cars? We’ll cover exactly that as well as the lemon law meaning and how it can all apply to your life.

Lemons and Automobiles: A Short History Lesson

For those wondering “what is the lemon law,” the lemon car definition is relatively simple, and it refers to any automobile that is found to have manufacturing defects — specifically those tied to the value, safety, or use of the vehicle. Even though it can refer to any manufactured good with a defect, ‘lemon’ is a term most commonly associated with new and used cars.

How did a citrus fruit and defective automobiles become so closely connected? Well, it all started in the latter half of the 1900s with a handful of industry-wide changes aimed at protecting consumers.

One man by the name of George Akerlof helped popularize the connection between cars and lemons in his famous paper, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” It used the example of a used car market to demonstrate the ways consumers make expensive purchases without fully knowing the quality of what they’re buying. According to the paper, whether a salesman knowingly sold a car with a defect or not, the consumer would potentially be the one dealing with the cost of replacing it.

One of Akerlof’s main points was this: With how complex cars and other manufactured machines have become, customers simply cannot know if every part and component works. Despite that, they’re often the ones on the hook when their newly purchased product ends up failing.

This paper was just one component that helped start a national conversation in the United States about consumer protections. Not only had it become clear that consumers needed protections against faulty manufacturing, but it also became clear that there needed to be a way to properly enforce those protections.

Where did that conversation lead? It resulted in the federal act that would go on to truly give the lemon law meaning.

Introducing the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act

In 1975, the federal government enacted what would become commonly known as the lemon law — known more formally as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.

So, what is the lemon law, exactly?

It’s an act that set out to make product warranties more clear and enforceable, and it gave the Federal Trade Commission means to protect U.S. consumers. It doesn’t necessarily require every product to have a warranty, but for those that do have one, it created a set of regulations that those warranties would have to follow.

The Act also allows for different types of warranties: namely, written or implied warranties. Written warranties are also called “express warranties” or “express written warranties” and are exactly what they sound like: promises made in writing by the manufacturer to the consumer regarding the product that’s been sold. Implied warranties are handled under state laws, but it means that certain assurances have been made so that the product meets certain expectations. These aren’t written and can be harder to handle in court, but they can still provide coverage under the lemon law.

To put it simply: It set out to protect consumers against deceptive warranty practices, something that had become more of a pressing issue.

Today, lemon laws exist to protect consumers who purchase defective goods. In most cases, this involves car defects, but California lemon law can extend to any number of things, such as: appliances, vehicles, or machines. Whether it’s for something that functions or something that moves, the lemon laws give consumers a way to receive a replacement or a refund for their defective products — all while (most importantly) putting the responsibility on the original manufacturer.

Let’s think back to the example laid out at the beginning of the article, where the car you purchased turned out to have more than a few defects. If this were some 60 or 70 years ago, there is a chance you would be on the hook for covering these repairs out of pocket. Even though that wouldn’t be the end of the world for problems such as a faulty radio, larger defects such as brake problems could pose a serious financial challenge, especially after already investing so much money in the initial car purchase. In some cases, it might even spell disaster for the car itself or pose a serious safety risk.

The lemon car definition we have today and the laws tied to it can help protect you from these unfair situations.

The Current State of Lemon Laws and Lemon Car Definitions

Though some of the details behind the lemon laws have adapted and changed over the years, the lemon law’s meaning has stayed the same. Today, they’re a set of federal and state laws that regulate and oversee consumer purchases of manufactured goods, and cars are at the forefront of the focus.

Speaking specifically in terms of cars, the lemon law definition states that a vehicle must have a “substantial defect” that begins causing problems within a certain time period after the purchase (usually within 12,000 miles or within a year of ownership, whichever milestone comes first), and persists after a significant number of attempts have been made on the manufacturer’s part to fix the problem.

The details of these requirements can change from state to state. Individual states have different requirements for the time frame (whether a year or two), the distance (12,000 miles or 18,000 miles), the specific defects covered (including brakes and steering), and the number of repair attempts that have to be made before you are able to receive compensation under the lemon law definition (usually four or more).

Though the exact wording of the lemon law may change depending on where you live — and, of course, depending on the product experiencing the defects — the overall spirit of the law remains the same: protect consumers from being taken advantage of when the product they purchased should have never been sold in the first place. And in the case of a lemon car, one that should’ve never been driven off the lot.

If your newly purchased car falls under the lemon law definition, the manufacturer of your car is required to compensate you for the purchase. This can happen in three different ways:

  1. They can offer to purchase the car back from you.
  2. They can offer to replace your car with another one in working condition.
  3. They can offer you a cash settlement.

No matter the method used, the goal is simple: resolve the situation of a defective car without putting the burden on the consumer.

So, What’s the Lemon Law Mean for You?

Chances are if you’ve driven a car for any number of years, you’ve run into at least a couple of car repairs — some of which may have even been in the early years of owning your new car. And since you use your car for nearly everything in your life, from running routine errands to visiting friends and loved ones, unexpected car repairs can be a source of substantial stress and unplanned financial burden.

But just because your car experiences problems, doesn’t necessarily mean what you drove off the lot was a lemon. Though we all expect and hope our cars will last us for years to come, some breakdowns are simply inevitable, and thus might not meet the California lemon law presumption.

For example, let’s say you did purchase a car that began experiencing some stereo issues as well as some air condition quirks, such as the temperatures not staying as cool as you’d like. Even though these problems are bound to cause some frustrations, they don’t immediately mean your car is a lemon.

However, if you experience problems with steering, brakes, transmission, or other major components of your new vehicle, you may, in fact, have a bonafide lemon on your hands. The lemon car definition requires a couple key things, namely that your problems still exist after multiple repair attempts or that your car has been in the repair shop for more than 30 days within the first year without any resolution in sight.

What Happens when a Car Falls Under the Lemon Car Definition?

If your car is still under warranty and you’ve made reasonable attempts to repair it, you may be eligible for protection under the lemon laws. You may have a valid claim as well if your car is out of warranty but the problems began while it was under warranty. Whatever the case may be, the first step in addressing the California lemon law process is contacting the dealer where you purchased the car from.

Along with contacting the dealer, reach out to the manufacturer of your car directly. Most car manufacturers provide customer service contact info on their websites. Contact their customer service department and let them know the car you purchased is presumably a lemon. Hopefully, the manufacturer will work with you to remediate the problem — whether that involves offering you a replacement or offering to buy the car back from you.

Unfortunately, not all manufacturers will want to buy the car back from you. Cases like these are where the lemon law meaning comes into play.

The Power of the Lemon Law

You shouldn’t have to be on the hook for a product that doesn’t work, even if the manufacturer is unaware of the defects. The lemon laws we have today exist to give you the legal protections to fight for the compensation you rightfully deserve. So, how does it work?

First things first: reach out to a lawyer who specializes in lemon law cases. They can help assess the likelihood of your car being a lemon as well as what the lemon law says about your situation — and they can help begin the arbitration process.

Sometimes, lemon law cases take place outside of court in lemon law arbitration. Rather than taking place in a standard judicial process, either a panel or a single arbiter will review the evidence on each side of the case (yours and the manufacturer’s) and then come to a reasonable and just decision. In each case, upon decision favoring the consumer, the manufacturer must also cover the consumer’s attorney fees.

The outcome of these proceedings are binding for the manufacturer, meaning they have to move forward with whatever is handed down from the arbitration. The consumer, however, has the power to appeal the outcome if they feel they deserve further compensation.

Wondering Whether Your Car Is a Lemon?

A reputable lawyer who is familiar with lemon law is a huge part of getting the compensation you deserve. They’ll have years of experience working these types of cases, and they’ll be prepared to work within the specifics of your state’s lemon laws. Our lawyers at Shainfeld Law are happy to help you move forward with your lemon law case. We’ll help you determine whether you have a case and how to best proceed.

And most importantly, we’ll help you get on the road in the new car of your dreams.

Contact us today to talk about your Lemon Law claim.