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Making Lemonade Out of a Lemon – Recent Court Decision May Help Auto Buyers Recover Under the Massachusetts “Lemon Law”

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by Mark Taylor Rumson

The Massachusetts “Lemon Law,” G.L.c. 90, Section 7N ½, obligates an auto manufacturer or dealer to repair any “nonconformity” to express or implied warranties – in other words, any defect that substantially impairs a vehicle’s use, market value or safety – that arises within one year or 15,000 miles of the purchase of a new vehicle. Under the law, if the vehicle cannot be repaired after a “reasonable number of attempts,” the purchaser is entitled to a refund.

A recent ruling by a Massachusetts Appellate Court may help consumers support their claims under the state’s Lemon Law, which is designed to protect buyers who purchase new, or certain used, motor vehicles that have substantial defects and are unsafe to drive.

The Lemon Law applies to the purchase of a new vehicle, or a used vehicle with fewer than 125,000 mile on the odometer on the date of sale. The law provides a potential avenue of recourse for those who have purchased a vehicle that has a “substantial defect” that the manufacturer (or dealer) is unable to repair. This defect must substantially impair one of the following: (1) the ability to use the vehicle, (2) the car’s market value, or (3) the safety of the vehicle.

The protections offered by the law are different -for brand-new vehicles and for used vehicles. The term of protection for new vehicles is one year or 15,000 miles from the date of delivery, whichever comes first.

With this background in mind, let us turn our attention to the customer and vehicle that were at the center of an Appeals Court decision – a decision that may be invoked by aggrieved buyers of new vehicles in the Commonwealth for years to come.

The customer in this case purchased a new pickup truck at a local auto dealership. The vehicle came with a limited warranty covering manufacturing defects. Soon after purchase, the truck allegedly began exhibiting mechanical problems, such as not starting, stalling, loss of power and dashboard indicators showing it was in “wrench” mode. The manufacturer’s roadside assistance program referred the buyer of the vehicle to a nearby dealer for service/repairs. Representatives at this dealership allegedly recommended numerous repairs. The buyer authorized the repairs, paid in excess of $8,000 in parts and labor, and picked up the truck a month later.

In the following months, the vehicle was taken back to the dealership on three more occasions for a variety of engine-related issues that required a litany of repairs, including replacement of a throttle sensor and the fuel pump.

The problems persisted and the buyer demanded the manufacturer take the truck back and provide a refund. When the manufacturer refused, the buyer filed claims in Superior Court against the manufacturer and the two dealerships alleging violations of the Lemon Law and the Consumer Protection Act.

While the litigation was proceeding in Superior Court, attorneys for the manufacturer and dealerships argued the vehicle was not non-conforming and requested that the trial judge dismiss the buyer’s case because he had not hired an expert to establish the vehicle was substantially defective. The trial judge granted the request and dismissed the case. The buyer successfully appealed the trial judge’s decision dismissing the action, and the case was returned to the lower court where the litigation continues. The Appeals Court found that in this case expert testimony was not required to demonstrate alleged defects or non-conformities. In essence, the Court accepted the buyer’s argument that, for example, when an engine falls out of a car on a highway, no expert is needed to demonstrate that the vehicle is not working.

It must be noted that the Appeals Court’s decision does not mean that buyers seeking relief under the Lemon Law will never be required to retain the services of an expert. The circumstances of each dispute will dictate whether an expert will be needed to establish violations of the law. Nevertheless, the Appeals Court ruling has been hailed by many consumer advocates who claim manufacturers and dealerships often argue, as a litigation strategy, that there is no defect that impairs the vehicle or that the customer cannot prove there is a defect, knowing the customer may not be able to afford expert witnesses to counter these assertions. The long-term implications and ramifications remain to be seen.