Top Reasons Lemon Law Cases Go to Trial
Lemon law is nuanced, and every case is different. There is, however, a short list of legal disputes that tend to cause cases to be contested and wind up in trial. These are the battle lines drawn in many lemon law litigations.
Whether the defect is "substantial."The repair problem must create a "substantial impairment" of use, value or safety. Not every defect counts. Whether the defect is substantial is determined by an objective test, based on what a hypothetical "reasonable" person would believe under the circumstances. This is a question for the jury to decide.
If a consumer complains about an odor from the vehicle's air conditioning system, as was the case in Lundy v. Ford Motor Company, 87 Cal.App. 4th 472 (2001), the manufacturer's attorneys will likely argue that any smells in the car are offensive only to the peculiar sensibilities of the plaintiff. The consumer's attorneys, on the other hand should argue that the odor is obnoxious enough to have an effect which would bother and distract any reasonable driver, such as by causing nausea and headaches.
There can be a wide range of possible outcomes from the jury as a result on which defects count as "substantial," creating fertile ground for arguments by attorneys at trial.
Whether the repair opportunity was reasonable.The consumer's only obligation under the lemon law is to allow the manufacturer a reasonable opportunity to repair the vehicle. Each repair visit to the manufacturer's dealership counts as an opportunity to repair the vehicle, whether the dealership attempts to do so or not.
However, juries are asked to consider a variety of factors in determining whether each repair opportunity is legitimate, such as to what degree the consumer gave information to the dealer needed to diagnose the issue, whether the symptom experienced could have multiple causes (such as rattle noises that could be caused either by a rough idle or by driving over bumps), and whether the manufacturer has published technical service bulletins related to diagnosis and repair of the issue.
This leads lawyers to mince the words contained in the repair records and occasionally other documents or correspondence. These words become highly important to the case (which is why the more savvy manufacturers make sure dealership personnel are trained in how to write repair records with furture legal disputes in mind.)
Whether the issue meets the criteria for the Lemon Law presumption.Related to the issue of reasonable repair is whether the repair history qualifies for the lemon law presumption established in California Civil Code ?1792.22(b). It specifies that the reasonable repair element is established by any of three different parameters, all within the first 18 months or 18,000 miles of the vehicle's repair history:
a. Two or more opportunities to repair a safety-related defect;
b. Four or more opportunities to repair a less serious but still substantial defect; or
c. 30 or more total days in the shop for any collection of substantial defects.
Some added legal complication enters the fray in that parameters (a) and (b) also require that the consumer have directly notified the manufacturer, but only if the manufacturer has notified the consumer of the lemon law presumption provision in the warranty manual, and that a qualifying arbitration program is available (if the manufacturer supports one). Parameter (c) does not require direct notification. California Civil Code ?1792.22(b)(3). Hopefully I haven't lost you. This is actually a simplified version of the code section, which has even further details about the arbitration program for lawyers to argue about in court.
The presumption is rebuttable by the manufacturer, but in most cases establishing it is as close to a "slam dunk" lemon law case as a consumer will find. On top of that, it creates a strong argument for a civil penalty--essentially, punitive damages up to a maximum of two times the actual damages--by suggesting that the noncompliance with the law was "willful" since it could be reduced to the presumption criteria. California Civil Code ?1794(c).
As you might imagine, with all of these details, starting with what qualifies as a safety-related defect and moving through notification requirements and arbitration-program certifications, and with the added stakes of the civil penalty, the question of whether the presumption standards are met is fiercely litigated up to and through trial.
Whether the defect is covered by warranty.Another common area of legal dispute is whether the defects are covered by warranty. On the defense side, you have the common argument that the symptom was caused by failure to maintain or "unreasonable use" of the vehicle. You also have a lot of parsing words over warranty exclusions and disclaimers. As an example of both types of elements, you might have an argument over whether a brake-wear issue indicates a defect, is caused by driving habits, or is simply indicative of a need for ordinary maintenance. You also occasionally encounter even more aggressive arguments, such as that the defect was caused by intentional tampering, or by some other outside influence.
Consumers, for their part, are expressly allowed to assert the implied warranty of merchantability under the California lemon law, and in some cases the Implied Warranty of Fitness for a particular purpose. California Civil Code ??1791.1, 1792.1. Without going into all the fine details, relying on implied warranties means softening the strict requirements of proving substantiality and reasonableness of repair opportunities, since the consumer need prove only that the vehicle failed in an essential purpose for which it was bought, or has too many defects to pass as would be expected in the ordinary trade of similar goods. This is a more subjective path, however, and so once again leads to more legal disagreement.