Motorists who live in New Jersey and have a major problem with a new vehicle have a handy tool: the best lemon law in the land. But about a third of the states have such weak lemon laws that consumers will have a tough time getting a fair deal, according to a study released this month by the Center for Auto Safety. https://bit.ly/2BwxWxW
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have "something that is arguably a lemon law," but too many fail consumers, said Jason Levine, executive director of the center, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader.
In the worst states, Levine said, there might as well be no lemon law on the books.
The states differ on what constitutes a lemon. But in general, a lemon car or truck has a single, serious defect impairing its safety, use or value. A vehicle could also be a lemon if it had a series of problems and could not be used for a long period — often set at 30 days — because it was at the dealership.
Given the cost of new vehicles, consumers should be angry that too many states "have decided they are not going to give anything but mediocre rights" to consumers, said Ronald Burdge, a lawyer from Dayton, Ohio, whose firm has specialized in lemon laws for decades.
That weakness is compounded because attorneys general are often not given the funding they need to help consumers who have bought a lemon, he said.
The International Association of Lemon Law Administrators declined to comment on the study. The executive director, Rick Soletski, said the association's policy was to have each state comment individually on such matters.
Typically, lemon-law claims do not require a lawyer and are instead handled by an arbitration board that may be chosen by the automaker or the state. For autos deemed lemons, the manufacturer is required to buy them back. There is, however, no national data on how many cars the makers buy back. Under weaker laws, the owner may have to pay for the miles driven.
The center's rankings are based on 10 factors, including how many repair attempts are required, the amount of time lost while the dealer has the vehicle and whether arbitration is state-run.
New Jersey claimed the top spot in part because it pushes the automaker to fix a problem quickly. The automaker gets only one chance to fix "a serious safety defect likely to cause death or serious bodily injury" and three chances to fix a less severe problem. It also provides state-run arbitration, which the center contends can be "fairer to consumers than the manufacturer arbitration programs." And a vehicle can't be out of service for more than 20 days.
New York ranked sixth. It earned high marks for not allowing an automaker to charge a customer for use under 12,000 miles. (Minnesota was rated in 16th place, earning a letter grade of "B.")
Illinois was ranked last, with a major criticism being that it lacks a penalty for an automaker that drags out the process, hoping the consumer will become frustrated and give up. Illinois also covers vehicles for only one year or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first. The center said there were also "a host of other deficiencies that can lead to a bitter outcome for consumers."
Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general, said the office would review the center's report. Meanwhile, "we encourage consumers to visit the attorney general's website to file a complaint, and we will attempt to mediate," she said.
The center also looked at whether consumers face any jeopardy by filing a lemon law complaint.
That's one reason that Colorado was ranked next to last. If a consumer sues an automaker over the lemon law and loses, the judge could make the consumer pay the automaker's legal bills.
It works both ways.
If the consumer wins, the judge could order the automaker to pay the consumer's bills. But a consumer may just give up rather than risk a big legal bill, Levine said.
Lawrence Pacheco, director of communications for the Colorado attorney general, had no comment on the ranking.
For consumers, a related and historically worrisome issue is interstate lemon laundering, said Rosemary Shahan, the president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a nonprofit in Sacramento.
When a vehicle is repurchased by the automaker, Shahan said, not all states mark the title with its lemon status. That lets an automaker sell the vehicle again without the new buyer knowing its troubled history, she said.
In 1996, the Federal Trade Commission considered requiring all states to mark the titles of lemons. But faced with opposition from the auto industry, the agency backed off.
"The FTC failed to act, and still fails to act, to protect the public from lemons with serious defects," Shahan said.