California Lemon Law. How it works.

California Lemon Law – A Comprehensive Guide

What is The Lemon Law?

California lemon law is a statute that requires a manufacturer to replace or repurchase a defective vehicle when the manufacturer fails to repair it within a reasonable number of repair attempts. The law applies to vehicles that are still under manufacturer’s warranty coverage period.

The law is contained in a group of code sections within California’s Civil Code, which regulate consumer warranties. The chapter containing these sections begins with Civil Code § 1790 and is known and cited as Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act.

Lemon law applies to any consumer goods, which means any new product “that is used, bought, or leased for use primarily for personal, family, or household purposes, except for clothing and consumables” Song Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. Notwithstanding this broad definition, lemon law is usually associated with vehicles and car problems.

How to Benefit from California Lemon Law?

To benefit from the protection of California lemon law, the consumer’s vehicle needs to be within manufacturer’s original warranty period. This is usually the limited warranty for 3 years and 36,000 miles or for 5 years and 50,000 miles. The powertrain warranty is also considered an original warranty for the purposes of lemon law.

The essence of lemon law is contained in Civil Code § 1793.2(d), a section within Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. It states that if the manufacturer or the dealer does not repair the vehicle according to their warranties after a reasonable number of attempts, the manufacturer shall either replace the vehicle or reimburse the buyer in an amount equal to the purchase price paid by the buyer.

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What is considered a reasonable number of attempts depends on the circumstances of the matter. Generally it can be from 2 to 5 repair attempts depending on the nature of the defect, the mileage and the age of the vehicle. It is also important to note whether the lemon law presumptions apply.

California Lemon Law Presumptions

Generally, to win a lemon law case in court, the consumer needs to prove that the vehicle is a lemon.  Lemon law presumptions, however, tell the court and the jury that the vehicle is automatically considered a lemon, unless the manufacturer proves that it is not a lemon. In legal language, the lemon law presumptions shift the burden of proof from the consumer to the manufacturer. That is, when the lemon law presumptions apply, the consumer does not have to prove that the vehicle is a lemon, instead, the manufacturer has to prove that the vehicle is not a lemon despite the presumptions. This means that if the consumer can prove that one or more of the lemon law presumption applies, and the manufacturer cannot prove that the vehicle is not a lemon, the consumer wins.

Civil Code § 1793.22, called Tanner Consumer Protection Act, provides some cases where it is presumed that “a reasonable number of attempts” to repair the vehicle have been made and hence the vehicle would be presumed to be a lemon. This is often referred to as the lemon law presumption.

The first California lemon law presumption is contained under part 1 of Tanner Consumer Protection Act. Per the act it is presumed a new vehicle is a LEMON if, within 18 months from purchase or lease or 18,000 miles of driving, the dealer tried to repair the same defect 2 or more times and the defect is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if the vehicle is driven. See, Civil Code 1793.22(b)(1).

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Under part 2 of the act, it is presumed a new vehicle is a LEMON if, within 18 months from purchase or lease or 18,000 miles of driving, the dealer tried to repair the same defect 4 or more times. See, Civil Code 1793.22(b)(2).

Finally, under part 3, it is presumed a new vehicle is a LEMON if, within 18 months from purchase or lease or 18,000 miles of driving, the vehicle has been out of service by reason of repair by the dealer for a cumulative total of more than 30 calendar days since delivery of the vehicle to the buyer. See, Civil Code 1793.22(b)(3). It is worth to note that this presumption applies only when the vehicle was out of service by reason of repair by the dealer and not because the dealer was waiting for parts required for the repair to be delivered to it.

Defects Covered by California Lemon Law

If you used the links above to read the actual code sections you have probably noticed that the law uses the word nonconformity instead of the word defect. The law defines these as nonconformities which substantially impair the use, value, or safety of the new motor vehicle to the buyer or lessee. Accordingly, if the defect does not substantially impair the use, value or the safety of the vehicle to its owner, said defect would not be covered. Consequently, whether the defect would be covered or not will oftentimes depend on how the consumer can demonstrate that the specific defect he or she has impairs the use, value or the safety of their vehicle.

Safety Defects vs. Non-Safety Defects

Because Tanner Consumer Warranty Act differentiates between defects that are likely to cause death or serious bodily injury and regular defects it is important to understand which defects fall under which category.

Generally, any defects that have caused the vehicle to stall, to stop, fail to steer, fail to brake, or fail to accelerate will be considered defects that are likely to cause death or serious bodily injury, if properly argued.

Defects with following parts may be considered conditions that can possibly cause death or serious bodily injury when combined with actual instances of failure: brakes, transmission, fuel pump, suspension, steering, engine, headlight, speedometer, door latch, tire, alternator, battery, engine control unit, brake pedal, etc.

The following will generally not be considered safety problems. Please note that some of these will rarely be considered defects that substantially impair the use, the value, or the safety of the vehicle, unless properly argued to be such: squeaking brakes, radio, audio system, speaker, A/C, navigation system, screen, trunk latch, door handle, upholstery, trim, dashboard, sunroof, paint and other non-safety problems.

California Lemon Law Civil Penalties

California lemon law civil penalty is an additional award of money that the court imposes on the manufacturer for the benefit of the consumer. Such civil penalty is awarded only in cases of a willful violation of Song Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. For example, when a manufacturer or a distributor knowingly refuses to repurchase or replace a vehicle in violation of lemon law.

The penalty can be up to a maximum of two times the amount of plaintiff’s actual damages. The primary purpose of the penalty is to punish the manufacturer or the distributor and to deter it from future violations of California lemon law. The consumer bears the burden of proving that the violation of California lemon law was willful to be able to receive the award of lemon law civil penalty.

Whether to award the penalty or not is generally decided by the jury and not by the court. The jury is usually asked using CACI No. 3244 form whether the violation was willful and whether it should impose a civil penalty. If the jury decides it should impose a penalty, it also needs to decide what would be the appropriate amount of the penalty capped by the twice the amount of actual damages.

The jury, however, cannot impose a civil penalty when it finds that the manufacturer or the distributor in good faith determined that there was no obligation to replace or repurchase the vehicle for whatever appropriate reasons. In Jensen v. BMW of North America, Inc. (1995) 35 Cal.App.4th 112, 136 the court noted that among factors that the jury should consider when imposing a lemon law civil penalty, the jury should determine whether (1) the manufacturer knew the vehicle had not been repaired after a reasonable number of attempts, and (2) whether the manufacturer had a written policy to repair or replace according to the act.

California Lemon Law FAQs

Below is our list of Lemon Law Frequently Asked Questions that contain quick answers to most lemon law related questions. If you cannot find the answer you are looking for in Lemon Law FAQ section below, feel free to contact us for a free initial consultation or use the menu on the right to learn more about lemon law.

What Type of Warranties Qualify?

To be able to benefit from California lemon law, the consumer good should be within the manufacturer’s or distributor’s original warranty period. In case of vehicles, these are usually the 3 year and 36,000 mile, or 4 year and 50,000 mile limited warranties. The powertrain warranties are also within California lemon law’s authority. Some manufacturer extended warranties also qualify. 3rd party warranty plans, however, do not qualify.

Can a Used Car Be a Lemon?

Used cars qualify under lemon law as long as they are still within the qualifying warranties mentioned above. Used cars that are outside the original warranty do not qualify. If you have a used car outside the warranty period that has repeated problems, it is a good idea to run a vehicle history check. The problems may be caused by a prior undisclosed accident. In that case you would have a claim against the dealer that sold you the used vehicle.

Can a Leased Car Be a Lemon?

Yes, a leased car can be a lemon.

Do I Need a Lemon Law Attorney to Handle my Case?

You are not required to have an attorney to handle your lemon law case, but it only helps to have one. California lemon law requires the manufacturer to pay your attorney’s fee whenever a vehicle is repurchase according to the law. This means that if your vehicle is bought back by the manufacturer, you do not need to pay anything to your lawyer. His or her fee will be paid by the manufacturer, separate and apart from your refund.

Which Defects Are Covered Under California Lemon Law?

Any defects that substantially impair the use, value, or safety of the vehicle qualify under California lemon law. Whether the defect impairs the use, value, or safety of the vehicle often depends on how well the consumer can argue or prove their case. If argued correctly, a navigation system defect that lags when updating the vehicle’s location can get you a lemon law buyback.

What Will I Get if My Vehicle is Repurchased?

Upon a lemon law buyback the consumer receives all payments made on the vehicle, including the down payment, and monthly payments (lease or finance), minus the mileage offset (Learn how to do a lemon law buyback calculation in California). The manufacturer will also reimburse your sales tax, registration fees, license fees, and any other fees and charges. The manufacturer will also cover the remaining balance on the loan of the vehicle. The best part is, the manufacturer will pay your attorney’s fees, so the representation will end up being completely free for you. In certain limited cases you may also receive a lemon law civil penalty that is paid my the manufacturer or the distributor for your benefit.

What Will I Not Get if My Vehicle is Repurchased?

You will not get reimbursed for any late payment charges on your lease or finance account. You will also not be reimbursed for your vehicle insurance payments. Any amounts paid for the aftermarket parts or service agreements that were not sold and installed by the manufacturer or the dealer will also not be reimbursed. You can, however, remove those parts from the vehicle as long as the vehicle is not damaged by the removal. You may also try to cancel any third party service contracts. You will still be responsible for any damage done to the vehicle and to make sure that the tire thread is within the acceptable limits.

What Will Happen if My Vehicle is Not Repurchased?

Sometimes the manufacturer offers a lump sum settlement in return to you agreeing not to sue the manufacturer for your lemon law claims. This usually happens when the defects are either not substantial enough, or there are very few repair attempts, or when the vehicle has already been repaired. If this happens, you may take the lump sum payment and keep the vehicle. The vehicle will still be covered under the warranty and any defects will still be repaired by the manufacturer per the warranty. If the manufacturer pays your attorney’s fee separately, we will not charge you anything. Additionally, we will never charge you anything out-of-pocket, even if we go all the way to trial and recover nothing.

What if I Have More Questions?

If the California Lemon Law FAQ section did not contain the answers you were looking for, feel free to contact us at 747-777-2977. We offer a free consultation for prospective clients.


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