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Top Reasons Lemon Law Cases Go to Trial

Lemon law is nuanced, and every case is different. There is, however, a short list of legal disputes that tend to cause cases to be contested and wind up in a court trial.

It should be noted that some manufacturers deny everything, regardless of merit, as a tactic to test the claimant’s resolve. In this blog, I’m referring to cases where there is legitimate — or at least a good faith basis — for legal disagreement. When these types of cases lead to a lemon lawsuit that is litigated, here are where the battle lines are often drawn.

  1. Whether the Defect is “Substantial”

    The repair problem must create a “substantial impairment” of use, value, or safety. Not every defect counts. Whether a vehicle’s defect is substantial is determined by an objective test, based on what a hypothetical “reasonable” person would believe under the circumstances.   This is a question for the jury to decide.

    For example, if a consumer complains about an odor from the vehicle’s air conditioning system, as was the case in Lundy v. Ford Motor Company, 87 Cal.App. 4th 472 (2001), the manufacturer’s attorneys will likely argue that any smells in the car are offensive only to the peculiar sensibilities of the plaintiff. The consumer’s attorneys who take a lemon lawsuit, on the other hand, should argue that the odor is obnoxious enough to have an effect that would bother and distract any reasonable driver, such as by causing nausea and headaches.

    There can be a wide range of possible outcomes from the jury regarding which defects count as “substantial,” creating fertile ground for arguments by attorneys at trial.

  2. Whether the Repair Opportunity was Reasonable

    The consumer’s only obligation under the lemon law is to allow the manufacturer a reasonable opportunity to repair the vehicle. Each repair visit to the manufacturer’s dealership counts as an opportunity to repair the vehicle, whether the dealership attempts to do so or not.

    However, juries are asked to consider a variety of factors in determining whether each repair opportunity is legitimate, such as to what degree the consumer provided the dealer with information needed to diagnose the issue, whether the issue experienced could have multiple causes (such as rattle noises that could be caused either by a rough idle or by driving over bumps), and whether the manufacturer has published technical service bulletins related to diagnosis and repair of the issue.

    This leads lawyers to mince the words contained in the repair records and occasionally other documents or correspondence. These words become highly important to the case, which is why the more savvy manufacturers make sure dealership personnel are trained in how to write repair records with future legal disputes in mind. When it comes to how to sue a car company successfully for a lemon claim, these records can be of great importance.

  3. Whether the Issue Meets Criteria for the Lemon Law Presumption

    Related to the issue of reasonable repair is whether the repair history qualifies for the lemon law presumption established in California Civil Code §1792.22(b). The code specifies that the reasonable repair element is established by any of three different parameters, all within the first 18 months or 18,000 miles of the vehicle’s repair history:

    (a) Two or more opportunities to repair a safety-related defect;

    (b) Four or more opportunities to repair a less serious but still substantial defect; or

    (c) 30 or more total days in the shop for any correction of substantial defects.

    Added legal complication enters the fray in that parameters (a) and (b) also require that the consumer have directly notified the manufacturer (but only if the manufacturer has notified the consumer of the lemon law presumption provision in the warranty manual), and that a qualifying arbitration program is available, if the manufacturer supports one. Parameter (c) does not require direct notification, as noted in California Civil Code §1792.22(b)(3). Hopefully, I haven’t lost you. This is actually a simplified version of the code section, which contains additional details about the arbitration program for lawyers to debate when a lemon lawsuit goes to court.

    The manufacturer can rebut the presumption. However, in most cases, establishing the presumption is as close to a “slam dunk” lemon law case as a consumer can get. In addition, the presumption creates a strong argument for a civil penalty — essentially, punitive damages up to a maximum of two times the actual damages — by suggesting that the noncompliance with the law was “willful”, as it could be reduced to the presumption criteria (California Civil Code §1794(c)).

    As you might imagine, with all of these details, starting with what qualifies as a safety-related defect and moving through notification requirements and arbitration-program certifications — and also with the added stakes of the civil penalty — the question of whether the presumption standards are met is often fiercely litigated up to and throughout a lemon lawsuit trial.

  4. Whether the Defect is Covered by Warranty

    Another common area of legal dispute is whether the defect is covered by warranty. On the defense side, you have the common argument that the defect was caused by failure to maintain the vehicle or due to “unreasonable use” of the vehicle. You also have a lot of parsing words over warranty exclusions and disclaimers.

    As an example of both types of elements, you may have an argument over whether a brake-wear issue indicates a defect, is caused by driving habits, or is simply indicative of a need for ordinary maintenance. You may also encounter even more aggressive arguments, such as that the defect was caused by intentional tampering, or by some other outside influence.

    Consumers, for their part, are expressly allowed to assert the implied warranty of merchantability under the California lemon law, and, in some cases, the Implied Warranty of Fitness for a particular purpose (California Civil Code §§1791.1, 1792.1).

    Without going into all of the fine details, relying on implied warranties means softening the strict requirements of proving substantiality and reasonableness of repair opportunities, as the consumer need prove only that the vehicle failed in an essential purpose for which it was bought, or has too many defects to pass as would be expected in the ordinary trade of similar goods. This is a more subjective path, however, and once again leads to more legal disagreement.

Follow-Up

This is not a comprehensive list of reasons why a manufacturer would reject a lemon claim and object to a lemon lawsuit, or why it could wind up in trial after extensive litigation. As I mentioned at the beginning, the California lemon law is complex and allows many ways to assert a violation or argue against the procedure or merits of a claim.

However, in my opinion, these four categories represent the meat and potatoes of litigated lemon law claims. In fact, in a hotly contested case, you will most often find several of these issues at play — and often all four.

Contact Goldsmith West

Even when it appears to result from an obvious fault on the part of the manufacturer, a lemon lawsuit may not be as straightforward as it seems. More than just hiring an attorney who knows how to sue a car company and will take your case, you need the experienced advice of an attorney who specializes in the complexities of lemon law. If you think that your vehicle’s problem(s) may be grounds for a lemon lawsuit, please contact us today for free consultation.

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