“I bought a car and it was a complete lemon. Should I sue them under the Lemon Law?”
If you are like most people, if you buy a car that turns out to be a piece of junk, you probably assume that your rights are governed by this thing called “the Lemon Law.” Which makes a certain kind of sense: they sold you a “lemon,” you paid good money for a bad car, shouldn’t they have to take it back?
The problem is that Alabama’s Lemon Law sucks. I’ve written about the Lemon Law generally in previous articles. And I have to say here that as a true lover of lemonade, lemon merengue pie, lemon bars from Pollman’s Bake Shop, lemon juice as the acidifier in my canned homegrown tomatoes, and pretty much all things lemon, I really don’t like the name of the law. We should give bad cars a bad label. We should call it the Grapefruit Law.
Alabama’s Lemon Law (Ala. Code 8-20A-1) has three huge weaknesses. First, it can only be used against manufacturers. So dealers who sell lemons get away Scot-free, even if they know that they’re selling junk. I don’t think this is fair. But car dealers have a very well organized lobbyist machine in Montgomery and Washington, D.C. so this isn’t changing anytime soon.
Second, it doesn’t apply to used cars. Even if they’re barely used. Most cars that are sold are used cars, and most fraud happens in used car sales, so this takes away lemon law rights from the people who need them the most.
Third, and most importantly in my opinion, the Lemon Law requires you to give the Manufacturer too many chances to fix the problem. In a nutshell, if you buy a vehicle with a major defect that pops up in the first 12,000 miles, then you have to give the manufacturer a reasonable opportunity to fix the car. What is a “reasonable opportunity?” That question is left to judges (and more often, arbitrators) to a certain degree, but the standard is this: Three repair attempts or 30 days in the shop. All 30 days or 3 attempts have to be directed at the same defect. If your vehicle has a window that won’t roll up and a clunky transmission, if you take it in the shop twice for the window and once for the transmission, you haven’t met the lemon law’s definition of “reasonable.”
But this isn’t the problem. Most people generally do give a dealer or manufacturer 3 chances to fix the malfunctioning part. The problem is that even after you’ve been reasonable, you have to jump through yet another hoop: you have to send the manufacturer a letter demanding that they fix the vehicle within 14 days. You have to send it to the proper address, which is designated by the manufacturer. And you have to send it certified mail. And you have to give them another chance to fix it.
If the defect is a radio that sounds funny, then a 4th repair attempt isn’t a big deal. But what if it is the power steering? Or the brakes? Who in their right mind would drive (or put their children in) a vehicle whose steering or braking is liable to malfunction at any moment? Nobody!
And this is the problem. You’re not going to take anyone to court over a radio. There just isn’t enough monetary damage involved. So for small defects, there’s no point in the Lemon Law because your case isn’t worth suing over. But for big defects, the ones that really affect the car’s performance or safety, you’re not going to jump through that extra hoop. The manufacturer is lucky if they get 3 chances to fix a car whose brakes fail without warning. No sane person is going to give them a 4th. But Alabama’s Lemon Law requires you to do just that. Which means that for cases involving serious defects, the Lemon Law is virtually useless.
So What Do You Do?
Fortunately, you still have other legal claims that probably apply. The best one in the case of a serious defect is typically breach of warranty. If your car came with a warranty, and the car didn’t perform as it was warranted, then you can sue for breach of warranty. You still have to give the dealer a reasonable chance to fix the problem, and you still have to follow the manufacturer’s procedures for resolving a warranty dispute, but if that fails, then you can go to court without any certified letter or 4th repair attempt.
If someone has been seriously hurt or killed by a dangerous defect, then you can take the dealer and/or manufacturer to court for product liability. This only applies to situations where someone has been personally injured, but if there are injuries, a product liability action can be very powerful.