By Nicole McLaughlin, Times Staff Writer, as seen in the Northeast Times on 2/20/2002
Most of us remember the excitement and the feeling of freedom that came with getting a driver's license.
Back in the days when cruising around in the family station wagon with the chipped paint and broken radio was your only form of transportation, you longed for the day when you could afford to buy a new car.
And after saving money, for what seemed like an eternity, that day finally arrived. The car that you had your eye on for months had the perfect color and price.
Your friends liked it. It was a smooth ride on the open road.
But things changed quickly, and the perfect car wasn't so perfect anymore. The car of your dreams had turned into a nightmare on wheels.
It was a lemon.
This scenario is all too common. In fact, it happens to thousands of Pennsylvanians every year, and that's why we have Lemon Laws which typically entitle consumers to free legal representation if their car turns out to be a clunker.
That's right. It's free, and Northeast native Jacqueline Herritt specializes in steering folks through the legal process.
Herritt, a Nazareth Academy graduate who grew up in Modena Park, is the managing attorney for the Ambler law firm of Kimmel and Silverman P.C., which specializes in Lemon Law cases.
She has been with the firm since her graduation from Temple University Law School five years ago.
The 12-year-old firm has helped more than 18,000 clients whose cars had defective parts or were not operating properly.
Many people, Herritt explained, aren't aware of Lemon Laws or how they benefit the consumer. Under Pennsylvania's Lemon Law, which has existed since 1984, car buyers are entitled to free legal representation if their vehicle is found to be a lemon. The manufacturer is responsible for all court costs and legal fees if the consumer wins the case.
"Consumers are entitled to a new car or their money back if they purchase or lease a new car and they have problems with it," Herritt said. "Anybody who leases from this point on will be covered by the Lemon Law. It makes sense because so many people lease their vehicles."
With a recent amendment of the Pennsylvania code to aid people who lease vehicles, some 40,000 to 50,000 additional consumers are now protected under the law.
Leased cars were included under the state Lemon Law on Feb. 11, and attorneys Craig Thor Kimmel and Robert Silverman were instrumental in making that happen.
Kimmel served as a legal consultant to the state House of Representatives' Consumer Affairs Committee and spent four years trying to expand the law. "He saw the shortfalls," Herritt said, "and he saw how Pennsylvania compares to New Jersey (where leased vehicles are covered) and how we could help more people."
The first hint of a problem with the vehicle must be reported to the dealer within the first 12 months or 12,000 miles. The problem has to be a substantial defect, such as engine trouble or a faulty transmission. It must affect the use, safety or value of the car.
"Obviously, a broken ashtray or not getting Q102 on your radio is not going to be a case," said Michael J. Sacks, director of the law firm. After the initial report, the dealer must be given three opportunities to fix the problem, or the vehicle must be out of service for 30 calendar days, before a person seeks legal representation.
If the dispute reaches that stage, the consumer could be entitled to a new car of the same value or a reimbursement of the cost.
Herritt said that the majority of Lemon Law cases – close to 65 percent – are settled out of court.
"We have as much of an incentive to get it settled as the consumer," she said. "The consumer wants to get rid of the car, and we want to get their cases settled for them as quickly as possible."
Herritt has some advice to help consumers avoid purchasing a lemon. Knowing the manufacturer's suggested retail price – what she calls the MSRP – is crucial. "A lot of people walk in, and they just take the sticker (price). Whatever the dealership tells them they have to pay, they pay," she said.
"The worst thing that a consumer can do is pay MSRP. You want to find out what the dealership paid for the car, and you want to negotiate between that and the MSRP."
Researching the cars that are out there and test driving the exact vehicle you will be purchasing – not just a demonstration model – are important as well. Use every feature to make sure that it works, such as the air conditioning and locks.
Help also is available to people who buy used cars, as long as they purchase them under the manufacturer's warranty.
"Then you have legal recourse if the car has problems," Herritt said. Clients come to the Lemon Law specialists from all over Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
Somerton resident Patrice Foley knows the feeling of having your patience squeezed by a lemon.
However, with the help of Kimmel and Silverman, she also knows the satisfaction of winning a case against a major manufacturer. Foley purchased a 1999 Chevy Malibu from a local auto dealer in the summer of 1999.
The car wasn't even a year old when she started having major problems with it.
Before the car was 2 years old, she'd had the brakes replaced twice, motor rotors replaced at least four times and a new water pump installed. The repairs were covered under the car's warranty, but they were an inconvenience for Foley, who became a familiar face at the dealership. "I had my oil changed every three-thousand miles, and I was in there at least once in between the oil changes," she remembered.
The problems with Foley's brakes kept recurring, despite the dealership's attempts to correct them. She began to think that she may have a lemon. Foley took her car woes to Kimmel and Silverman, which accepted her case. Foley's case was settled in November, and she was refunded her full purchase price.
She was surprised at the simplicity of the process.
"It was very easy," she said. "I called not knowing anything about it. I never had to go in the office, and they're very good about getting back to you." Foley, a teacher, was a little leery of buying a new car again, but she decided to try her luck with a 2002 Honda Accord.
Foley hasn't had any problems. But if she does, she knows what steps to take, and she's making sure her friends know all about the Lemon Laws. "I would have never even thought of doing it if a person at work hadn't mentioned it to me," she said.
For more information on the Lemon Law, call 1-800-Lemon Law or visit the Web site www.lemonlaw.com