Bringing a New Vehicle Defect Case in Small Claims Court
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Most states have a law (the "lemon law") that requires the car dealer or manufacturer to give you a new car or a refund if your new car breaks down during the first 18 months or first 18,000 miles of the car's warranty period, whichever ends sooner. Unfortunately, because most new vehicles cost more than the small claims maximum, it is unlikely that you will be able to bring a small claims lawsuit against a car dealer or manufacturer for violating the lemon law.
Making lemonade out of your lemon. For more information on lemon laws, see the following websites:
- www.autopedia.com/html/HotLinks_Lemon.html (includes individual summaries of each state's lemon laws)
- www.autosafety.org/lemon-laws-state (includes information on defects common to particular car models).
What if your car breaks down just outside the warranty period? Luckily, you may still have a winnable case: When a relatively new car falls apart for no good reason, many small claims court judges bend over backward to look for a legal way to give you protection over and above the actual written warranty that comes with the vehicle. For example, you still may be able to recover some money under one of the following approaches:
Prove that the defects arose while your car was still under warranty. Often a newish car that suffers serious mechanical problems soon after the warranty period runs out suffered similar problems during the warranty period. If so, you will want to argue that the dealer made inadequate repairs in the first instance and should still be responsible for the subsequent problems.
Document your attempts to have your car repaired. Make sure the judge knows about all the trips you have made to the dealer's repair shop. One way to establish this is by presenting copies of work orders you signed. If you don't have these or other records, request copies from the dealer, or sit down with a calendar and reconstruct the dates you brought your car in for repair. In court, give the copies or your list to the judge. If you have only your list, explain that it's your best estimate. The judge should accept it as being true unless the car dealer disputes it.
Investigate the possibility of a "secret warranty." After a model has been in production for awhile, a pattern of problems or failures may develop. Manufacturers are extremely sensitive to complaints in "high problem" areas–if for no other reason than to head off a possible federal safety recall. As a result, the manufacturer may have issued a "service bulletin" and created an adjustment program that extends the warranty or offers to pay for repair of conditions that substantially affect the vehicle's durability, reliability, or performance. Here's how you can find out about service bulletins and adjustment programs:
- Dealers must post a notice in the showroom or other areas with information on how to obtain service bulletins.
- You can search the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database of technical service bulletins at www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov (click on "Service Bulletins").
- If you go to the dealer for repair of a condition covered by an adjustment program, the dealer must inform you of the program's terms.
- The manufacturer must notify eligible owners about an adjustment program within 90 days after adopting it.
If your vehicle has a serious problem but the manufacturer hasn't issued a service bulletin or adopted an adjustment program (or you can't find out about either), talk to people at independent garages that specialize in repairing your model. Especially if they tell you the problem is widespread and that the manufacturer has fixed it without charge for some persistent customers, your next step is to write a demand letter to the car dealer and manufacturer. Mention that if your problem is not taken care of, you will sue in small claims court and you will subpoena all records having to do with this defect. This may well cause the manufacturer to settle with you. If not, follow through on both threats.
EXAMPLE: Bruno bought an expensive European car that repeatedly had engine problems while under the manufacturer's written warranty. Each time, Bruno brought it into the dealer's repair shop and adjustments were made that seemed to fix the problem. A few months after the written warranty ran out, the engine died. Even though the car was only a little over a year old and had gone less than 50,000 miles, both the dealer and the parent car company refused to repair or replace it. Their refusals continued even though the owner repeatedly wrote to them, demanding action. How does Bruno deal with his problem?
First, because he needed his car, he had the repairs made. Second, although the repairs cost slightly more than the small claims limit, he decided he would scale down his claim and sue for the small claims maximum to save the extra expense and hassle of finding a lawyer and suing in regular court.
At the hearing, both Bruno and his wife testified about their trials and tribulations with the car. They gave the judge copies of the several letters they had written to the dealer, one of which was a list of the dates they had taken the car to the dealer's shop while it was still under warranty. They also produced a letter from the owner of the independent garage that finally fixed the engine, stating that when he took the engine apart, he discovered a defect in its original assembly. The new car dealer testified only that his mechanics had done their best to fix the car when it was under the written warranty. He then contended that, once the written warranty had run out, he was no longer responsible. The dealer made no effort to challenge the car owner's story, nor did he bring his own mechanics to court to testify to how they had repaired the car while it was still under warranty. Bruno won and the dealer was ordered to reimburse him for the repair costs.