The History of California’s Lemon Law

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Posted By | November 10, 2023 | Firm News

Purchasing defective products can impose a significant safety hazard, and none more so than a defective vehicle that transports families at high speed on California’s roadways. For many decades, consumers who purchased new vehicles had no legal recourse if the vehicle they purchased had significant defects, causing a car to spend more time in the dealer repair shop than on the road, or presenting a serious safety risk to motorists. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Congress addressed this lack of consumer protection with an act offering legal recourse for consumers who purchased a faulty vehicle. This law quickly became known as the Lemon Law.

The term “lemon” has long been used in the UK to denote a substandard product, likely due to the sour taste the fruit leaves in the mouth. The term became more firmly attached to defective vehicles after a famous Volkswagon ad depicting a Volkswagon Bug as a lemon.

Connecticut was the first state to pass a lemon law after a resident purchased an expensive car that suffered repeated failed repair attempts while the seller continued to sell the defective vehicles at luxury car prices. Other states soon followed, including California in 1970. Then, Congress passed a nationwide act to protect vehicle consumers in all states under federal law.

What is the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act?

In 1975, Congress enacted a historic law protecting automobile consumers as part of a larger act known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. This act holds manufacturers accountable for their product warranties. Prior to this historic act, consumers nationwide had little recourse once sold a defective vehicle other than to keep returning it to the dealer repair shop for ineffective repairs.

California has some of the country’s most rigorous consumer protection laws including the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act protecting consumers for five years prior to the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. In California, the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act is what’s known today as the California Lemon Law, but the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act also allows lemon law lawyers in California to file claims for residents who purchased their lemon in another state. California’s original lemon law under the Song-Beverly Act prevented manufacturers from forcing consumers to repeatedly return their vehicles for repairs without resolving the problem.

Under California’s original lemon law, a consumer had the right to a full refund, replacement vehicle, or buyback of their defective vehicle if the defect still existed after “several repair attempts.” Then, in 1982, new guidelines proposed by California Assembly member, Sally Tanner, clarified the vague language in the original law to more specific qualifications for a “lemon.”

What Qualifies a Defective Vehicle as a Lemon in California?

Under the clarified definition of a lemon, a vehicle in California may qualify as a lemon under any of the following circumstances:

  • It’s undergone four or more unsuccessful repair attempts at the dealership
  • It’s had two or more failed repair attempts for a defect that presents a significant safety hazard
  • It’s spent 30 or more days in the repair shop (the days do not have to be consecutive)
  • The repair attempts were covered under the original manufacturer’s warranty

The Lemon Law covers new vehicles, leased vehicles, and used vehicles sold with a written warranty issued at the time of sale.

While today’s lemon law in California is streamlined, effective, and targeted at problem vehicles still under warranty, manufacturers often take advantage of their effective legal strategies such as recommending vehicle owners attend arbitration rather than file lemon law claims. These rarely benefit the consumer. A California lemon law attorney can represent the consumer’s best interests in a lemon law claim and make a compelling case for a full refund or buyback.