California Lemon Law Facts

By Robert Vaux

  • Overview

    The California lemon law is known as the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. It is intended to cover any number of defective products, but its principal use comes with automobiles. A new car can cause significant problems in work and family life if it is constantly in the shop. The Song-Beverly Act provides for reasonable restitution and a means of replacing a certified lemon without resorting to expensive lawsuits.
  • Basics

    The California lemon law allows a consumer who has purchased a faulty vehicle to receive compensation for it, either in a replacement car of equal value (usually the same make and model with the same accessories) or by cash reimbursement of the cost of the car. That cost includes taxes, licensing and registration fees, as well as repair costs and towing costs incurred. A percentage is deducted from that cost representing the owner's use of the car before the first repair came up. It's reflected as a percentage of 120,000 miles: if, for example, you drove the car 6,000 miles before its first repair, 5 percent would be deducted from its estimated price (6,000 is 5 percent of 120,000).
  • Specifics

    The definition of what constitutes a lemon in the Song-Beverly Act is firm, but not without room for interpretation. Repair costs can vary widely, and the law allows for vagaries which can be arbitrated by a judge or agreed-upon third party. The overview states that a car is a lemon if repairs have been made on a dangerous or life-threatening problem at least twice, or on a less-threatening problem four times or more during the first 18 months or 18,000 miles after purchase (whichever comes first). If the car has been out of service because of a problem for 30 days or more, that makes it eligible for the lemon law, too. However, the law simply states that "a reasonable number of repairs" need to be conducted, and the precise definition of that is left up to the particulars of the case.

  • Types

    The types of vehicles protected under the Song-Beverly Act are basically those used for personal or non-commercial use. Families and individual owners are covered, as are business vehicles which weigh less than 10,000 pounds and belong to a company that has five such vehicles or fewer registered in California. Used vehicles under warranty are covered in their own section of the lemon law, but the statute of limitations for filing suit under the Song-Beverly Act is four years from the purchase of the vehicle. The California government urges out-of-court settlements whenever possible in such cases.
  • Misconceptions

    Under the California lemon law, the car owner needs to prove that the manufacturer has had a reasonable opportunity to repair the car. The car must be covered under a manufacturer's warranty and the repairs need to be conducted under the terms of that warranty (usually in a repair shop certified by the manufacturer). Because of that, it's a good idea to contact the dealer the moment there is a problem and to take repair steps as stipulated by the warranty. Keep careful track of all correspondence, both the letters you send and the ones you receive. You'll need all of them if the case goes to arbitration.
  • Other Vehicles

    New motorcycles, motor home interiors and car parts such as chassis are also covered by the Song-Beverly Act, though the details vary somewhat depending on the vehicle in question. In all cases, the dealer's warranty must be in effect and the "reasonable number" of repairs must be made before you can declare the car a lemon. Lemon law attorneys can provide specific advice about the Song-Beverly Act, and should be consulted before pursuing any legal action.
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