Recovering Damages for a Defective Vehicle: Understanding the Basics of Lemon Laws

By | November 16, 2016

Have a car with serious mechanical issues? Cannot find others with same or similar issues? Don’t think that you cannot recover damages for a defective automobile. Thanks to consumer advocates, we have what is commonly known as “lemon laws” to protect people from vehicles that keep breaking down. 

Many people think there must be a recall or a class action lawsuit before they will be able recover from an automobile defect. If it is not a common problem with everyone, then it isn’t something they can sue for, right? Wrong.

Sometimes vehicles are just defective, same as other products. It could be from someone at the plant failing to do their job properly or could be caused from a defective part. When it happens, the car industry refers to it as a “lemon.” Lemons can be a common problem with the same type of car; or, they can be a single case that doesn’t happen with others.

What Qualifies as a Lemon

Lemon law qualifications vary by state, but if you understand the reasoning behind these laws you will have an idea of what qualifies as a lemon.

Lemon laws are based on what is referred to as an “implied warranty of merchantability.” An implied warranty is not written down but it means that a product is automatically guaranteed to work as designed for a reasonable period of time.

Implied warranties exist because not everything has a written warranty. They also help when there is a defective product that breaks outside a written warranty period. Here is an example:

Let’s say you buy a refrigerator. They are expected to last approximately five years and most come with a one year warranty. After one year, the motor on your unit breaks. After replacing it, the motor breaks again within six months. After fixing it a third time, it breaks again. Despite it not being under the written warranty, a reasonable person would believe that the refrigerator should last for more than a year and the problems with this one should be covered under an “implied warranty.”

You should also be aware that in order to qualify as a lemon, it cannot be a problem caused by abuse of the owner. Until we have self-driving cars everywhere, this could be a difficult one to prove.

Some states have a three strike rule, where it is considered a lemon after the same problem occurs three times. Others consider it a lemon if the problem itself cannot be fixed at all, regardless of how many times the problem has been addressed.

States have enacted lemon laws to help consumers and manufacturers determine what qualifies as a lemon. Each state law varies and you can find a full list of lemon laws by state at

Most Manufacturers Have Lemon Policies 

Before you go down the road of litigation, bear in mind that manufacturers have their own lemon policies. If a vehicle qualifies as a lemon under their policy, there is a specific recourse for you.

Many dealers will also buy a vehicle back from its owner if they have been unable to fix a recurring problem. Sometimes this is covered under the warranty while other times they consider it a “goodwill” gesture.

Manufacturers will deal with lemon claims on an individual basis. If it is a major issue, manufacturers will sometimes initiate a buyback program to get as many of the vehicles off the road before they become lemon law cases. A recent example is major problems with the Ford Fiesta, which has caused some dealers to try to purchase the vehicles back from owners, in order to avoid future issues that could cost them even more from potential lawsuits.

More Than the Manufacturer Could be Liable

In addition to the manufacturer, there are two other parties who could be liable in the event you purchased a lemon vehicle. The first could be the dealer if you purchased it from a car dealership. The other could be the private seller if you purchased through this route.

Sometimes the seller of a vehicle will try to cover up defects in order to get the most money from the sale. Someone knowingly selling such a vehicle and failing to disclose the issues could be liable for damages.

This is a form of fraud and the penalties vary depending on the state where you made the purchase. It could also be considered a breach of contract in certain circumstances and lead to you being able to void the original contract and obtain damages.

Now, some states have implemented laws that exempt dealers from having to disclose that a vehicle has prior issues. This is why it is important to do your due diligence before driving your vehicle off the lot.

Final Thought on Lemon Laws

Remember that there doesn’t have to be a major recall or class action lawsuit in order to recover from a defective automobile. If your vehicle has problems that cannot be fixed or is constantly under repair, you could have recourse. In addition to using the manufacturer’s warranty and lemon policy to recover damages, there are various lemon laws depending on your state that will allow you to make a legal recovery if necessary.

Do you have a lemon story? What did you do to recover for your loss? I would love to hear your stories below in the comments.

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