Warranties are most of the reason why we buy cars new instead of used. But what do we do when we buy cars that don’t perform as they’re warranted?
Sometimes, a car just isn’t built right. Maybe somebody in the factory was sleeping at the assembly line. Maybe there was a weak piece of steel somewhere in the frame. But whatever the reason, sometimes you buy a car that just doesn’t work. This happens with every sort of consumer product – from canteloupes to cell phones to cars. And ancient rules of commercial practice – most of which have been enshrined in the Uniform Commercial Code, which is now the law in 49 of the 50 United States – provide a simple remedy: if it doesn’t work the way it is normally expected to work, then you can get a refund. This is true, even if there is no written warranty, and it is something we lawyers call the “implied warranty of merchantability.” Basically, if a product you buy doesn’t work the way it should, then the default rule is that the merchant should pay you back the purchase price.
If you’ve ever returned a faulty ceiling fan or toy at Wal-Mart, then you’ve dealt with the Implied Warranty of Merchantability. When you take the item back and get a refund, Wal-Mart isn’t just giving your money back out of sheer generosity or great customer service. They’re doing it because they have to.
And car dealers have similar obligations. Of course, because automobiles have big price tags and car dealers make lots of money by moving deals along, rather than unwinding them when things go wrong, car dealers put a LOT of effort into avoiding their warranty obligations. In fact, most dealers have worse customer service than Wal-Mart. And Wal-Mart isn’t always known for great customer service. But I assure you, if you buy something from Wal-Mart that doesn’t work, you won’t have to take Wal-Mart to court to get a refund. With car dealers, however, filing a lawsuit is pretty much bound to happen if you buy a vehicle that doesn’t perform well.
So What do You Do?
Once you determine that you’ve been sold a vehicle that isn’t up to standard, there are two basic rules to how you proceed to fix the situation. First, you must give the manufacturer a “reasonable opportunity” to fix the problem. What does this mean? Basically, you need to take it back and let them try to repair the defect. If the product you’ve been sold is defective, then before asking for a refund, you do have to give them a chance to fix the defect. And you may have to give them multiple chances to fix the problem. How many chances? That depends on the nature of the problem. For a minor issue like a radio that doesn’t sound right, you have to give them several chances. For a dangerous problem like brakes that don’t stop the car quickly, two repair attempts may be sufficient. “Reasonable” is a question that is decided for each case as the facts dictate. It is reasonable to expect several tries to fix a radio, but not brakes, because brakes are just essential to the function of a vehicle. No reasonable person can be expected to drive a car whose brakes have failed after several repair attempts.
Second, you must follow the manufacturer’s written procedures for making warranty claims. Your manufacturer’s warranty should be in the Owner’s Manual or a separate booklet. Wherever it is, you need to read it and follow it to the letter. It may direct you to take the car to a licensed dealer. If so, then you have to do that. It may require you to submit your warranty claim to BBB Auto Line or some other ‘neutral’ warranty dispute resolution process. If so, then you have to do that.
Whatever the process is, you should follow it to the letter. Failure to follow the contractual procedure is the number 1 slimy defense that makers and sellers of bad products use to avoid the consequences of selling junk to innocent buyers. Don’t let it happen to you.
As a final thought, most of the rules that apply to automobile warranties also apply to all warranties for major consumer goods, like boats, RVs, and even mobile homes.