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Drivers Stuck With 'Lemons' Have Law


Lemon Law protects new-car buyers if auto becomes mechanical disaster

Michael Coates, 54, of Somerdale, who's been turning a truck wrench since he was a youngster, was stunned when his 2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS started acting up with only 1,880 miles on the odometer.

"It was my baby," said Coates with a sigh, waxing nostalgic for the silver car he handed back to the dealership in May.

Coates' new car was serviced 15 times in 20 months. Among its woes were a jumpy idle and defects in roller systems, causing scratched, stuck windows. The vehicle's subframe, which held up the car's engine and transmission, cracked and was replaced twice. In spite of repeated repair attempts by the dealer, the idle and window problems persisted.

After 17 months, Coates decided to call it quits. He saw a newspaper ad for Haddonfield attorneys Kimmel & Silverman. Since 1991, attorneys Craig Kimmel and Robert M. Silverman have recovered more than $100 million for their Lemon Law clients – about 7,000 frustrated car owners in New Jersey and 10,000 in Pennsylvania. The firm, which operates in two states, claims to handle the largest volume of Lemon Law cases in the nation.

Enacted in 1983, the New Jersey Lemon Law protects the rights of a new-car buyer up to the first 18,000 miles or two years of service, whichever comes first, Kimmel said. If a manufacturer's warranty extends beyond that, there is additional protection under federal law. New Jersey's 1996 Used Car Lemon Law covers some, but not all, used cars purchased from dealers.

Lemon Law complaints can also be filed directly with the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which will pursue valid complaints with the car's manufacturer. According to state records, 7,000 New Jerseyans have filed Lemon Law complaints with the agency between 1990 and 2000. Of that number, 3,123 were found to be valid, and 2,349 were resolved to benefit the consumer.

Mindy Holman of Holman Ford, which has dealerships in Mount Laurel, Turnersville and Glassboro, said customers should realize that vehicle manufacturers, not their dealers, are the ones liable under the Lemon Law.

"We want customers to be happy with their relationship with us," she said.

Kimmel said car owners should fully avail themselves of service under a vehicle's warranty.

"Demand what you've paid for. The manufacturer builds into every price 15 to 30 percent to cover the cost of warranty repairs. You've actually paid for the warranty when you buy the car," Kimmel said. For a car to classify as a lemon in New Jersey, there must be a "substantial impairment of use, value or safety" that is not corrected. The vehicle must be out of service for a total of 20 days or accumulate three unsuccessful repair attempts.

Kimmel's interest in consumer issues goes back to his law school days when he fought his first Lemon Law case with himself as a client. He won. Later, when he teamed up with Silverman, the two lawyers discovered that Lemon Law litigation appealed to their consumer spirits. They also helped set up an educational Web site.

There are Lemon Laws in every state, Kimmel said, but New Jersey's law is one of the broadest and best, covering not only purchased new vehicles, but leased cars and motorcycles.

Kimmel thinks consumers don't understand the New Jersey Lemon Law – especially one aspect of it. He wants consumers to know that an aggrieved buyer may sue, and if the case prevails, all court costs and attorneys fees will be charged to the vehicle manufacturer. Even if the consumer loses, there is no fee with Kimmel & Silverman.

Is the future ripe for the production of more lemons?

The contributing editor to Motor Age magazine in King of Prussia, Pa., Stan Stephenson, doesn't think so.

"I don't think today you can find a really bad car in the American market," he said.

Stephenson, who covers the future of automotive technology, believes modern cars are generally trouble-free, longer-lasting, and much improved in terms of materials, design and system technology.

"In the future, the challenge will be for the technician to stay abreast of the high-tech features of the car and particularly the diagnosis of problems," he said.

Coates, the Monte Carlo owner, thought he might have a lemon and found a lawyer.

"I called them up and they said, 'if you send us all the papers, we'll take care of it," Coates said.

Within 90 days, Coates received back his purchase price – about $23,000 – minus an $800 mileage offset. Chevrolet picked up the attorney fees. Grieving for his lost Monte Carlo, Coates turned around and bought another one – this one a 1998 model.

Another Kimmel & Silverman client is less sentimental about the loss of her vehicle. Does Elizabeth Gillman mourn her 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan?

"No, I don't. I was aggravated with it," said the Cherry Hill woman. She had purchased the van to take herself and her three children to school, where she works as a substitute teacher.

Gillman's lemon had no mechanical problems, but an apparent structural one. Every time it rained, the van leaked, soaking the passenger side from under the dashboard clear back to the third row of seats. The wetness made the interior stink.

Five or six trips back to the dealership yielded no no satisfaction. Once the vehicle was kept for eight days, but the source of the leak could not be found. Stumped, the dealer referred Gillman to another Dodge service department.

"They treated me like a dumb broad and said that I must have left the windows down," she said.

Gillman said she was unaware of the free legal representation available under the Lemon Law until a friend told her.

"I thought it was going to cost me something," Gillman said. It didn't. After eight months of driving a leaky car, Gillman received a purchase price refund from Dodge, minus about $800 for her mileage last January. The attorneys were paid by Dodge.

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