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Bittersweet: Limits of the Lemon Law, becoming a better car buyer

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Erik Benson
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Judge Advocate

Editor’s note: This article is not intended to be legal advice. It is an informational.

Car buying is one of the recent topics more frequently experienced among legal assistance appointments at Cannon. We live in a community with its fair share of automobile dealerships as well as easily accessible markets just across the state line in Amarillo and Lubbock, Texas.

One of the many issues facing car buyers is dissatisfaction with their new vehicle. Some clients hear the beckoning of the Lemon Law as the savior to their problems, but upon further research have discovered that it is incredibly difficult to file a legitimate Lemon Law complaint.

The New Mexico Department of Motor Vehicles defines a “lemon” as a “new or used vehicle that, after purchased, is discovered to have major defects that were not apparent before.” Each state has its own Lemon Law, and New Mexico’s is considered more helpful in comparison to other states’ Lemon Laws.

The inapplicability of the Lemon Law resides from the number of specific criteria necessary for the complainant’s vehicle to meet. The buyer needs to provide the dealer or manufacturer with a “reasonable amount” of attempts to fix the vehicle. Reasonable amount usually means three or four, but consider the length of time that accumulates taking four trips to the shop. New Mexico Lemon Law has a standard 12-month statute of limitations, so by the time that fourth adventure to the shop fails, the buyer is already ineligible to file a complaint.

Additionally, the Lemon Law states that each attempt has to be for a consistent problem. Semantics can ruin your complaint: Are a “carburetor” issue and a “spent carburetor” issue one in the same?

These tedious criteria ironically protect manufacturers from Lemon Law complainants. Also consider that some consumers may not even be aware of a major defect to their car until after the standard 12-month statute of limitations has expired. Most state Lemon Laws do not even apply to used vehicles. New Mexico’s does apply, but their law also slaps on additional limiting criteria for these used vehicle complaints. Texas Lemon Law is simply inapplicable to used vehicles.

Even if a Lemon Law complaint is properly filed, there is no guarantee the buyer will receive a payout. If the complainant does receive a payout, it is oftentimes not a full payout. It is a settlement offered at a fraction of the amount the complainant demanded. Most Lemon Laws even fail to compensate complainants for their legal expenses.

One might ask themselves, is all this time and effort really worthwhile?

Rather than trying to apply the Lemon Law, car buyers could consider filing a standard breach of contract lawsuit against the dealer or manufacturer. If the dealer sells you a vehicle with undisclosed finances or damages, adjusts the terms of your initial contract, or dishonestly answers any of the questions you ask, that is grounds for you to file a breach of contract lawsuit, something car buyers often find easier and more worth their time and effort in receiving compensation.

Deciding what your best option is can be difficult. That is why many car buyers in the Cannon community seek legal assistance from one of our attorneys at the Cannon AFB law office.

There are a number of automobile consuming practices that can be simply applied that go a long way in protecting you from being trapped in an unfavorable or unsavory contract, enabling you to receive the best value for your money and ensuring that your new ride was not picked from a lemon tree.

Consider the following:

- Narrow down your desired vehicle to one or two makes/models. It is impossible for automobile consumers to become an expert on ten or a dozen specific models, but with a little internet research, you can know all the specs, rates, and histories of any one or two specific vehicles. Going to the dealer with this knowledge enables you to run the sale, not be swayed by the dealer whose job it is to know (or make you believe they know) the market.

- Take your time in deciding when to sign. Car buying is big business and for many it is the greatest single investment of their money. Time is always on the side of the buyer because there will always be a better deal out there to find.

- Ensure the integrity of your contract. Consider bringing your contract into the legal office, where an attorney will go through each paragraph with you to make sure there is not any undisclosed or unsavory loopholes buried in the pages. Even if you have already signed the contract, bring the contract in: gain security in confirming you have not agreed to anything unknowingly.

- Make sure you receive a copy of your original contract the day you sign it. Do not be satisfied with the dealer saying they will send you a copy in the mail; there should not be any reason they cannot provide you a copy on the day of sale.

- Consider taking your new vehicle into a third party, trusted auto shop and order a full diagnostic inspection. You will find that this step is well worth the money you fork over if the mechanics do in fact find something at issue, ultimately saving you time and money in the future.

Just remember, the Lemon Law is not as applicable as many believe. There are, however, other options available including filing a standard breach of contract lawsuit against the dealer or manufacturer. By being more knowledgeable consumers, Airmen can ensure that they are receiving the best value and adequately protecting themselves in the jungle of automobile sales.

If you have had a bad experience, wish to confirm the integrity of your current contract, or simply want to prepare yourself for a future car purchase, please consider making a legal assistance appointment with one of our attorneys at the Cannon Legal office by calling 575-784-2211; we are located in Building 60 across the street from the Base Theater.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Taking short, preventive steps when making your car purchase can help you avoid having to take the long, reactive steps necessary when your car becomes a lemon.