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Tougher 'Lemon' Law to Offer More Protection

October 11, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT

Californians stuck with unsafe vehicles plagued by serious defects will enjoy greater protection under a toughened auto "lemon" law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis.

Under Senate Bill 1718, which will take effect Jan. 1, manufacturers will have just two chances to fix a life-threatening defect on a vehicle. After a second unsuccessful repair attempt--including failed attempts to diagnose the problem--the vehicle will officially be declared a lemon.

Once declared, the vehicle will be branded forever, and the auto maker required to replace it or refund the owner's money. Current law allows four repair attempts of serious safety defects before a vehicle is branded a lemon.

"This new law will help save lives and prevent injuries" caused by accidents involving defective vehicles, says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety in Sacramento. "The 2.8 million Californians who buy new cars each year will now enjoy greater protection."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 25, 2000 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Financial Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Lemon-law arbitration--Because of erroneous information provided by the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Daewoo Motor America was mistakenly listed Oct. 11 among auto makers that do not offer arbitration to resolve warranty disputes. The company offers a program administered by the Better Business Bureau.

SB 1718, like current law, applies lemon-law coverage to new vehicles within the first 18 months of service or 18,000 miles, says Kathleen Hamilton, director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. The new measure maintains a key provision of the current law, which is that a vehicle out of service for repairs for more than 30 days.

SB 1718 also closes loopholes that previously enabled manufacturers to resell lemon vehicles without having to brand their titles, fix the defects or put a "lemon-law buyback" label on the doorjamb.

Since 1990, state law has required auto makers to disclose to subsequent owners that a vehicle is a lemon buyback. However, Shahan says, some manufacturers were not following the law, because they believed they were obligated to inform owners only if four repair attempts were made. The new law makes it clear that a vehicle's lemon-buyback status must be disclosed to the new owner after only two repair attempts.

SB 1718 extends coverage, for the first time, to small-business owners with fleets of as many as five vehicles that weigh less than 10,000 pounds each, says Rachel Chavez, Consumer Affairs' chief of arbitration certification.

The bill, written by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), won support from Shahan and other safety advocates who argued that allowing auto makers four chances to repair defects endangered lives. Auto makers still have four chances at repairing non-life-threatening defects.

"Time is of the essence when you need to get a car fixed that has life-threatening defects, including brakes that fail or engines that stall on the freeways," Shahan says.


What can you do if your new car or truck develops a serious defect and you believe it qualifies as a lemon?

Besides taking your vehicle to a dealership or authorized service center for repairs, write to the manufacturer to inform it of the problem. The appropriate address should be in your vehicle's owner's manual. Send your letter by certified mail, so you have proof that it was received. Be sure to keep a copy, as well as all service records related to the problem.

Written notification may be more effective than trying to contact the auto maker via telephone, Shahan says. Some Your Wheels readers have complained about having little success getting immediate help on manufacturers' toll-free lines.

If repair attempts are unsuccessful, and the manufacturer refuses to replace the vehicle or refund your money, you can apply for arbitration or contact a lawyer who specializes in lemon-law cases.

Indeed, most auto makers have California-certified arbitration programs to resolve vehicle warranty disputes, including lemon-law claims. Although Consumer Affairs certifies and evaluates the programs, the state office does not get involved in arbitration or maintain a hotline to assist consumers.

Manufacturers that use arbitration programs: DaimlerChrysler (including its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands); Ford (Lincoln, Mercury, Land Rover); General Motors (Chevrolet, Saturn and its several other American brands, plus its Swedish marque, Saab); Honda and its Acura luxury brand; Hyundai and its Kia affiliate; Isuzu; Nissan-Infiniti; Porsche; Rolls-Royce and Bentley; Subaru; Toyota-Lexus; and Volkswagen-Audi.

Major auto makers without California arbitration programs: BMW, Daewoo, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lotus, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Suzuki and Volvo.

To locate a lawyer specializing in the lemon law in the greater Los Angeles area, motorists can call the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s lawyer referral and information service at (213) 243-1525. On the Internet: or

Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail:

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