What is the California Lemon Law?

By Robert Vaux

  • Overview

    Many states have "lemon laws," which are intended to protect consumers in the event that the car they purchase doesn't meet basic quality standards. In California, the lemon law is formally known as the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. Though it is an extremely complex piece of law, its essence is reasonable and direct, aimed at reducing the inconvenience of multiple repairs and allowing car dealers to make proper restitution on a shoddy product.
  • The Law

    The Song-Beverly Act hinges upon the car's warranty. Within that time, if a new vehicle is unable to meet the basic terms of the warranty after a "reasonable number" or repair attempts, the buyer is allowed to ask for restitution. Used vehicles are covered as well, though the specific terms differ in order to address issues such as wear-and-tear. However, if the used car was covered by a specific dealer's warranty, then the Song-Beverly Act basically covers it too.
  • Features

    The key phrase in the Song-Beverly Act's wording is "reasonable number" of repair attempts. Obviously, the owner and the dealer may differ significantly on what constitutes a "reasonable number." Generally speaking, the lemon law can be invoked within the first 18 month or ownership or the first 18,000 miles, whichever comes first. If the problem is dangerous or life-threatening, the lemon law can be invoked after two attempts to repair the vehicle. For lesser problems, the law can be invoked after four repair attempts. You can also invoke it if the car has been out of service for 30 days or more because of repair problems. In most cases, you are required to notify the manufacturer before conducting any repairs, and the manufacturer may have a specific arbitration program which you must go through if you want to invoke the Song-Beverly Act.

  • Coverage

    The Song-Beverly Act dictates what specific vehicles are covered by its terms. It basically stipulates vehicles used for personal or family purposes, and business vehicles which weigh 10,000 pounds or less. It also includes motorcycles and motor home interiors, though the specifics of those vehicles differ than with new cars. Cabs, chassis, and any individual element covered under the dealer's warranty are all covered by the Song-Beverly Act.
  • Benefits

    When the Song-Beverly Act is invoked, the owner of the car has the option to choose how he is compensated. He can either ask for a replacement vehicle matching the make, model and features of the old car, or be compensated financially for the cost of the car. That includes sales tax, registration fees, and towing and repair costs. However, the amount of use on the car before it was brought in for repairs will be deducted, with the car's mileage determined as a percent of 120,000 miles. So if you drove 3,000 miles before you first needed a repair, there will be a 2.5 percent reduction in the car's estimated cost (3,000 is 2.5 percent of 120,000).
  • Warning

    The California lemon law contains a statute of limitations--four years--for filing a suit against the car manufacturer. You should always keep careful records of any interactions with the manufacturer: make copies of any requests for repair and save copies of any paperwork or email you receive from them. An attorney skilled in California lemon laws can provide advice on specific nuances of the Song-Beverly Act, and you should always consult with one before pursuing compensation.
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