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What is the Lemon Law?

by Autobytel Staff
May 20, 2011

The Lemon Law is simple enough.  It is a federal statue that mandates a product must function as intended as long as it remains under warranty. The Lemon Law was a boon to consumer rights, and it made car manufacturers more responsible if a buyer ends up in a lemon car.

Most people take it for granted, but once upon a time, namely the early 1970’s, cars came from the factory with chronic build problems. During that time, thick, choking smog blanketed major metropolitan areas. Detroit automakers built massive engines that breathed fire and frightened young women. People were going too fast and having too much fun. This kind of freedom had to be stopped. The oil embargos of 1967 and 1973 dealt a black eye to the makers of machines seeing single digits for their mileage efficiency. Something had to be done to save the children and the old people and the trees.

The first environmentalists and eco-warriors lobbied the Federal government to tame these wild shenanigans and put the planet first. By 1970, the Feds flexed their muscle. By 1974, the edict arrived. They said that our fuel would have no lead and that our vehicles would produce no smog.

The auto designers reacted poorly to the new federal guidelines. Instead of building machines that made power, they found themselves coping with carbon monoxide production, nitrous oxide output, and exhaust gas recirculation. Engines went from lean power plants measured in gross horsepower to great hulks of iron, neutered by smog pumps, spaghetti harnesses of vacuum hoses, miss-aligned cam shafts, and the most heinous creation of all, the catalytic converter.

As manufacturers coped with the new parts, the build quality diminished to new lows. (This marked the time when European and Asian manufacturers established themselves as producers of high quality goods, but that’s another story.) The cars from Detroit simply failed to perform as they should. They broke down, and the volume and consistency of the poor builds caused the Federal government to act again.

The Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act of 1975, later known as the Lemon Law, mandated that a manufacturer must stand behind the products it warranties. The law applies to most manufactured, mechanical items, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, appliances, and even computers. In the car business, it meant that if a car under warranty failed to perform as intended, and if it still failed to perform as intended after a reasonable number of repairs, then the manufacturer would replace the vehicle, refund the price, or in some way make restitution to the buyer.

While the Lemon Law came as a federal statue, the duty of interpreting the law fell to the states. Each state now sets its own guidelines as to the definition of the coverage and conditions for a lemon car to be covered by the law. Some states say a car must be repaired three times for the same problem to qualify as a lemon car. Some say twice for brake, steering, or driveline problems that may make the car unsafe.

The Lemon Law spurred manufactures to improve their quality, and the resulting vehicles in subsequent years from U.S. automakers have displayed quality rivaling any foreign manufacturers. Today, carmakers are very aware of the Lemon Law. It remains on the books, and they remain on the hook for any poorly built vehicle. The last thing any manufacturer wants is to return a buyer’s money and be labeled as a manufacturer of lemon cars.

Some used vehicles, those certified and still under the manufacturer’s warranty, may still fall under the Lemon Law’s umbrella. However, any older vehicle sold “as is” is exempt from the Lemon Law. 


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