Sour Power

Lemon Law Woman

Sour Auto Power

Think you've bought a lemon? Here's where you can go for help!

In 1995, newly independent college graduate Jamila Kinsey was excited about her first major purchase – a new 1996 Volkswagen Passat. But within four days, the transmission died and had to be replaced. Over the next four years, excitement would give way to aggravation. There was problem after problem with the car. When Kinsey pressed her power window buttons, the lights would dim or the windshield wipers would come on, and the transmission had to be replaced again. "I kept my documentation, receipts, and invoices from the very beginning. I called the Better Business Bureau and they weren't able to help. I felt like my hands were tied," says Kinsey. a 32-year old nurse recruiter at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "I finally contacted the Kimmel & Silverman law firm."

Kinsey's automobile turned out to be a lemon. According to Autopedia, a car is considered a lemon when a number of attempts have been made to repair a defect that significantly impairs the use, value, or safety of a car and the car continues to have the defect.

Each state has its own Lemon Laws. If you're having any problems with your new car, take it back to the dealer and have it repaired under your manufacturer's warranty.

If you continue to have the same problem or multiple problems with your new car, it may be a lemon. "Study the Lemon Laws of your state to see if your car meets the criteria of a lemon.

Do what you have to do to invoke the Lemon Law, such as sending certified letters to the manufacturer." says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety and co-author of The Lemon Book: Auto Rights (Moyer Bell Ltd.; $24.95).

What Constitutes A Lemon?

Each state has its own Lemon Laws but they all share certain basic principles.

For example, it's a general rule that a car manufacturer's warranty must cover any defects occurring within a 12- to 24-month period, or within 12,000 to 24,000 miles. Furthermore, a car buyer is entitled to a refund or vehicle replacement if the following things occur:

  • The car manufacturer has made one unsuccessful repair attempt to rectify a serious safety defect, i.e. one involving brakes or steering.
  • The car manufacturer has made two unsuccessful repair attempts to rectify a non-serious safety defect.
  • The car manufacturer has made three or four unsuccessful repair attempts to rectify other defects.
  • The vehicle has been in the repair shop a cumulative total of 30 days in a one-year period, with at least one of those days occurring within the car's first 12,000 miles.

About half of the country has Lemon Laws that allow the consumer to recover attorney fees.

Make sure all of your invoices are dated, keep a record of your complaints, and show how technicians handled the problem. Also, take note of how many times the same problem occurred and the number of days the car was held at the dealer each time. If the car is not repaired properly after several attempts and the manufacturer does not solve the problem to your satisfaction, contact a lawyer. As Kinsey learned, it is very difficult to handle the matter yourself, and dealers as well as manufaturers will ignore you until you retain legal counsel.

"State Lemon Laws help consumers obtain a refund or new item for defective product. New cars come with a warranty and many state laws require [that, in the event of a problem, the car can be fixed] in the first year. If the manufacturer – who is solely responsible – doesn't repair it, they have to buy it back or replace it with a new car. In most states, it's at the consumer's discretion," says Craig Thor Kimmel, founding partner of Kimmel & Silverman, P.C., a law firm formed in 1991 to assist distressed drivers with cost-free Lemon Law and breach of warranty representation. "Be careful of lawyers who charge a retainer for their services. Their services should be free to you."

Lemon Laws in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and California allow for recovery in excess of the purchase price of the car. This is the done to discourage manufacturers from dragging their feet. Pennsylvania's Lemon Law has an addendum that was cowritten by Kimmel. It states that if a consumer purchases a used car with a lemon history, the dealer must inform the consumer of the car's history before he or she purchases it. Missouri and New Jersey are among the states that have Lemon Laws for used cars.

According to the Center for Auto Safety, California, New Jersey, and Ohio have the best Lemon Laws, while Illinois, Colorado, North Dakota, and Arizona have some of the worst. If you live in a state that doesn't have strong Lemon Laws, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that applies to defective vehicles. "Consumers should contact their legislators and attorney general and tell them that they want a strong Lemon Law for their state," says Ditlow, "Tour our website,, and file a complaint. Consumers should talk to one another, complain at town hall meetings, and go in groups to talk to their congressmen about Lemon Laws."

Although some organizations weren't helpful, and friends and family were skeptical, Kinsey didn't stop until she found an attorney to take her case. She sued and won in May 2000. The manufacturer paid her $7,000, covered all of her lawyer fees, and let her keep the car. "If the manufacturer doesn't handle your complaints to your satisfaction, seek legal help. Even when others said it was a waste of time, I moved forward and won," says Kinsey.

– Leslie Guess Royal (published July 2005, Black Enterprises magazine)

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