Reprinted from The Erie Times, May 20, 2001
By Jim Martin, Staff writer
Barbara McGarvey, a Venango County kennel owner, had high hopes when she bought her 1996 Land Rover.
She and her late husband had been happy with a similar model. Besides, she was paying a premium price for what she thought was a premium sport utility vehicle.
She took it as a bad sign, though, when her check-engine light came on less than four months after she bought the Rover. Unfortunately, it was only the first of many problems to come.
By the time the Pittsburgh area dealership where she bought the car could see her, she noticed the rear cargo window had fogged over and the taillights weren't working.
The sunroof leaked, the ABS light stayed on for miles, performance was sluggish and fuel economy slipped to about 10 mpg.
According to complaints lodged with her dealership, the air conditioning scarcely worked and the rear speaker kept coming off the door. There also was a matter of rust bubbles, a CD player that wouldn't eject and a passenger door that wouldn't lock.
As she soon discovered, McGarvey was driving a lemon. Residents in and around Erie, PA wanting to learn more about the Lemon Law should call 1-800-LEMON-LAW.
A lemon is more than shorthand for a problem-prone car. As in other states, Pennsylvania has a legal definition of the term and it's used to describe a car that during its first 12,000 miles has a substantial impairment of use, value or safety.
With about 25,000 miles on the odometer, the vehicle would not pass a Pennsylvania state inspection.
For months it sat in her driveway as McGarvey continued to make payments.
Her SUV might have been sitting still, but McGarvey wasn't.
She contacted a lawyer who filed a complaint under the PA Lemon Law. The process took some time, but eventually Land Rover agreed to buy back the SUV, reimbursing her for both the principal and interest she had paid.
After sitting in her driveway for 1 1/2 years, the car was hauled away on the back of a flatbed truck. Although she was pleased with the resolution, McGarvey said she remains surprised by all that went wrong.
"I thought with the quality of the car and the name that it would have performed a little bit better than it did," she said. She learned an important legal lesson as well - one that her lawyer, Craig Thor Kimmel, tries to share every day with consumers and prospective clients.
The lesson is this: Not only is legal help available for new car buyers who encounter serious problems, but legal services are free and historically the chances of winning are good.
Kimmel, founder of the Philadelphia area law firm of Kimmel & Silverman, discovered this legal specialty more than a decade ago as a law student, plagued with car problems of his own.
Filing claims under the Lemon Law isn't like most other areas of practice.
Kimmel, who heads what he calls the nation's busiest Lemon Law practice, said lawyers don't charge clients an hourly rate or take a share of the settlement. Instead, the bill is sent to the manufacturer, which is required by law to pay it.
Lawyers with substantial Lemon Law experience typically take cases for free, Kimmel said.
"Consumers should never have to pay an attorney for handling a good faith warranty claim," Kimmel said.
"If the attorney you are speaking with won't agree to accept the case without charge, then perhaps the person lacks confidence in the claim or is unfamiliar with how to win and collect a fee."
Kimmel, whose firm has handled more than 15,000 cases and recovered more than $100 million, offers some thoughts and advice about car problems and Lemon Law claims.
Kimmel said he's encountered few people who are trying to get something for nothing. In most cases, he said, consumers are ready and willing to work with the manufacturer to make things right.
"They aren't thinking of how they can get something for nothing. They just want their car fixed," he said.
The definition of a fair settlement can vary wildly."If my impairment is a broken ashtray, $5 might be my damages," he said. On the other hand, Kimmel said, he has a client whose Ferrari has needed four major transmission repairs. "He doesn't want them to buy it back. It cost him $30,000 over sticker. In cases like that, Kimmel said, "You hold out for a new vehicle."
Let the carmaker or dealer try to fix the problem. Just because your car's paint starts peeling after three months doesn't mean you're entitled to a new car. The dealer has to be given a chance to make things right, Kimmel said. In some cases, that means getting a rebuilt transmission instead of a new one.
Three times is the charm. If three attempts to fix a particular problem in a single year doesn't resolve the problem, your car meets the definition of a lemon, said Michael Sacks, director of communications for the law firm. Even if a fourth visit fixes the problem you might still have a case, Sacks said.
Long warranties on some inexpensive cars might not be all they're cracked up to be, Kimmel said. "A promise is good as long as it has some teeth," he said. "You can't repair problems with cars that have design defects."
Few lawyers take every case. Kimmel said he knows, for instance, that it's difficult to prove a case that centers around bad gas mileage. Problems related to noises also make tough cases, he said.
Kimmel said he doesn't worry too much about sorting through frivolous complaints. After all, this isn't an area of the law that provides for massive punitive damages."If it's something feel is urgent enough to call us about, they're usually right," he said.