Lemon Law Controversy

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Pennsylvania's Lemon Law Still Controversial

June 2002

Pennsylvania was among the first states to enact a "Lemon Law" – a 1984 statute that protects people who buy cars that have stubborn, seemingly intractable problems.

This week, after years of pressure by consumer advocates, it became one of the last states to fill an increasingly gaping hole in that law: extending protection to the growing number of people who lease new cars rather than buy them.

It's a right that New Jersey consumers have had since that state's Lemon Law went into effect in 1989. So do those who lease cars in Delaware and 37 other states.

In the end, the House and Senate agreed unanimously to the change, and Gov. Schweiker signed it into law on Thursday. It takes effect in mid-February.

Don't let the unanimity fool you into thinking the Lemon Law is an uncontroversial subject, though. It is anything but – all the way down to the use of the word lemon.

For many years, carmakers were loath to even acknowledge what some consumers discovered the hard way: Some cars seem to have chronic problems that result in trip after unsuccessful trip to a car dealer.

That's what happened to Carol Durso of Drexel Hill, who leased a 2001 Volkswagen Beetle – a car she refers to as "the Oktoberfest version because it must have been made while someone was drunk."

"I love the car. It's delightful, except it stalls," says Durso, who teaches chemistry at Haverford High School and at Community College of Philadelphia.

Intermittent Staller

It stalls at stop lights. It stalls at slow speeds. Sometimes it even worries her at highway speeds. But it doesn't always stall – and after four attempts to fix it, the dealer finally told her that she should wait until the problem became constant rather than intermittent.

Durso's story has a happy ending. Worried that the car was dangerous – "It's not the safest thing to have a car that stalls when the traffic wants to get moving," she says – Durso contacted a lawyer who handles Lemon Law cases, even though she knew leased vehicles were exempt in Pennsylvania.

Lemon Law attorney, Craig Thor Kimmel, argued to Volkswagen that Durso's situation also was covered by a federal law, the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975, which protects purchasers when a manufacturer fails to fix a product that is under a warranty. He says Volkswagen has agreed to replace the car.

Kimmel, who served as an unpaid consultant to the House committee that adopted the lease provision, says that extending the Pennsylvania Lemon Law's reach was better than relying on the federal statute, because carmakers sometimes argue it doesn't apply to them.

What Other Changes?

What other changes are in the offing – or should be – for Pennsylvania's Lemon Law?

One is "title branding" – a provision meant to ensure that once a car is repurchased as a lemon by a manufacturer, it isn't resold to an unsuspecting consumer.

Rep. John Evans (R., Erie County), the House bill's sponsor, says he had to drop a title-branding proposal to get the leased-car provision passed this year. But he plans to try again.

On that count, Pennsylvania lawmakers could do worse than to emulate New Jersey's statute, which requires the title of a recycled lemon to say "returned to the manufacturer under Lemon Law."

Manufacturers prefer title brands that don't use the L-word at all – they want to refer to such a vehicle as a "buyback" or "repurchase," says the manager of the Lemon Law Unit in the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, Bob Russo, who recently served as head of the national organization of Lemon Law administrators.

The states differ on other counts, too. Pennsylvania Lemon Law covers chronic problems that crop up during the first year or 12,000 miles. New Jersey's covers the first two years or 18,000 miles.

Manufacturers now offer warranties that last at least three years and as long as 10 years – but it's the Lemon Law that enables consumers to make that warranty count if a chronic problem arises. It wouldn't hurt to have a law that lasted for longer than a year.

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