Will My Lemon Law Case Land Me in Court?

Wooden gavel in a courtroom

Buying a new car only to find out it has a recurring problem that makes it a lemon can be disappointing and aggravating. However, being burdened with a lemon vehicle may not only be inconvenient and costly. Depending on the defect, a lemon car can present serious safety issues for drivers, passengers, and others on the road.

If you've purchased a lemon, you may have spent a good deal of time bringing your car back and forth to the shop for repairs. You might also have incurred significant out-of-pocket expenses as a result of doing so. Once you've realized that your vehicle's issue can't be fixed, you might be wondering what happens next — and whether your lemon law case will need to be litigated in court.

What Makes Your Car a Lemon?

There are specific criteria that must be met to invoke your rights to a remedy under California Lemon Law. If you can establish that your vehicle has a problem that substantially impairs its safety or value, you may be entitled to a replacement or refund. Whether your car has transmission problems, bad brakes, defective airbags, a malfunctioning computer system, or another issue, the nonconformity must have been discovered while the vehicle was covered by the manufacturer's warranty in order for the lemon law to apply.

A reasonable number of repair attempts must have been made before you can assert a lemon law claim. Usually, four trips to the repair shop will sufficiently demonstrate that the defect cannot be repaired. But if your vehicle has a serious safety issue that could cause physical harm or fatality, only two repair attempts are necessary. A car may also qualify as a lemon if it was in the repair shop for a total of 30 days or more.

There is a legal presumption in California that a vehicle is a lemon if the defect arose within 18 months following the vehicle's delivery, or before the odometer reached 18,000 miles. Importantly, if the lemon law presumption is applicable in your case, you aren’t required to prove that your vehicle is a lemon. Rather, the burden is on the manufacturer to show that your car is not a lemon.

Can a Lemon Law Case Go to Arbitration Instead of Court?

Many people have the misconception that arbitration is the only way they can resolve their lemon law claim — this is incorrect. While manufacturers may try to encourage arbitration as a way to settle your case faster, these programs are generally more beneficial for them than they are for the consumer. In many cases, your best interests might be better served by filing a lawsuit in court.

Lemon law arbitration comes with certain disadvantages for consumers. Unlike in litigation, the arbitration process doesn't permit discovery which can help prove your claim. Additionally, even though you can take your case to court if the arbitrator did not rule in your favor, the arbitration decision can be admitted as evidence in court.

Critically, you may end up receiving less monetary recovery by resolving your case in arbitration instead of pursuing litigation. In a lemon law court case, you may not only be eligible to be compensated for your consequential damages, but you may be able to recover a civil penalty, incidental damages, and attorney's fees — which are not awarded in arbitration.

What Makes a Case Go to Court?

If the manufacturer refuses to replace or repurchase your defective vehicle, you may have no other option than to take your lemon law case to court. The stronger your case is, the more likely the manufacturer may want to quickly resolve it. However, a manufacturer may not be willing to settle for a number of reasons. Often, these are the types of issues that are frequently litigated in lemon law court cases.

One commonly contested issue that may land your case in court concerns whether the vehicle's defect is "substantial," pursuant to California's statute. Not every defect rises to this level, and the question of whether it does may need to be decided by a jury. The manufacturer may also try to argue that you didn't allow them to have reasonable repair opportunities. In addition, disputes can arise if the manufacturer contends that the defect is not one that is covered by the warranty, but instead was the result of wear and tear or unreasonable use of the car.

It's crucial to be aware that there is a strict time limit on raising a claim under the California Lemon Law. You only have four years to file your lawsuit in court, from the date you found out about the defect that made your car a lemon. Failure to do so could bar you from the recovery to which you might otherwise have been entitled.

Recovery in California Lemon Law

After your lawsuit has been filed and discovery is completed, your case may go to trial and be decided by a jury if it doesn't settle during the course of litigation. If you prevail in your case, you can choose to have the manufacturer either repurchase or replace the defective vehicle. If you opt for a replacement vehicle, the manufacturer must provide you with a substantially identical one. If you prefer to be refunded for the defective vehicle, you are entitled to the total cost you paid, minus a mileage offset.

Under California's lemon law, you may also be entitled to recover additional damages, including:

  • Out-of-pocket repair costs
  • Towing costs
  • Rental car expenses
  • Attorney’s fees
  • Court costs
  • Other incidental damages

If you can prove that the vehicle manufacturer willfully failed to comply with the lemon law, you may also be entitled to a civil penalty up to double the amount of actual damages incurred. These damages are meant to serve both as a deterrent and punishment for manufacturers who intentionally violate the lemon law. Although the civil penalty is not applicable in every case, these damages can be substantial when awarded.

Contact an Experienced Southern California Lemon Law Attorney

Lemon law cases can be complex and highly nuanced. It's best to have a knowledgeable California Lemon Law attorney on your side who can guide you through the process and help ensure the best possible result is achieved in your case — whether in litigation or outside the courtroom. The lemon law attorneys at The Ledbetter Law Firm have extensive experience handling lemon law cases and securing positive outcomes, whether in litigation or through negotiation.

The Ledbetter Law Firm helps consumers in Southern California who have purchased lemon vehicles obtain the refund or the replacement that they deserve from the manufacturer. With offices conveniently located in Los Angeles and San Diego, California, telephone and video conferencing options are also available. Call (619) 374-0252 to schedule a consultation with a California Lemon Law attorney today.