An Alternative to Lemon Law Litigation

If you are experiencing problems with your vehicle and believe you may have a claim under your state’s lemon laws, you may be able to avoid litigation by participating in the Better Business Bureau’s AUTO LINE® program instead. The AUTO LINE® process is far less involved than traditional litigation. And best of all, the decision of the arbitrator is binding on the automobile manufacturer and non-binding on the consumer.

First, determine if the AUTO LINE® program is available in your state and if your vehicle’s manufacturer participates in the program. Currently, the AUTO LINE® program is available in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Click here for a list of current manufacturers that participate at http://www.bbb.org/us/auto-line/state-lemon-laws/.

Next, check to be sure your vehicle qualifies under the lemon laws of your state. In Ohio, for example, a vehicle may qualify as a lemon if it has not been properly repaired with a reasonable number of attempts. For example, it’s reasonable if the same defect still exists after three or more attempts to fix the same problem, or if there have been eight or more attempts to repair any nonconformity. The vehicle may be a lemon if it has been out of service for repairs for a cumulative total of more than 30 days, or there has been at least one attempt to fix a safety defect — one which is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if the vehicle is driven.

To be timely, the first complaint must be raised within the first 12 months following the date of original delivery or during the first 18,000 miles of operation, whichever is earlier. Again, there are different requirements for different states.

If you believe you have a lemon, it’s important to describe the problem the same way each time you go to the dealership for repairs. For example, “The vehicle pulls to the right” and “The brakes pull when applied” sound like different complaints, but may actually be the same complaint using different words. Be sure that you report the same issues the same way for each repair. Always review the service record generated by the dealership each time to confirm that it accurately describes your complaint. Often, the amount and accuracy of the information on your repair orders can make or break your claim.

Claims must be received by AUTO LINE® within the time period for filing a legal action under the applicable state’s lemon law or prior to the expiration of the automobile’s “New Vehicle Limited Warranty,” whichever expires first.

Assuming you have met the eligibility criteria, and your application has been timely filed, an arbitrator will be assigned to your case. You will be asked to provide the arbitrator with all of your repair records and the information associated with the acquisition of the automobile, such as the original buyer’s order.

The AUTO LINE® program applies to both leased vehicles and purchased vehicles. However, the program doesn’t apply to commercial vehicles or vehicles used in a trade or business. Eventually, the matter will be set for a hearing before the arbitrator. You will be asked to bring the vehicle with you. The manufacturer will participate in the arbitration, often by phone. The arbitrator will be present in person. While it’s not necessary for you to have a lawyer to prepare or assist you in the presentation of your claim, a well-articulated and well-supported claim has a much better chance of being well received. You can also bring witnesses with you if necessary. The arbitrator will listen to your position, which should include specific references to the repair orders. The more you can do to substantiate your case through the repair orders, the stronger your case will be. Then the manufacturer will have an opportunity to present its side of the matter. Often, the manufacturer will assert that there were not three or more attempts to repair the same defect, or the defect was repaired, or the claim was not timely filed. A well-organized and well-prepared claim is the best rebuttal.

Charles drove the pace car at the Kentucky Speedway at the Quaker State 400 in July.

At the close of the hearing, the arbitrator will often ask to inspect your vehicle and, if appropriate, accompany you on a short test drive. The purpose of the test drive is to ascertain whether or not the issues still exist and, if so, how they affect performance.

About three weeks after the hearing, a decision is rendered by the arbitrator. If the arbitrator agrees with you, he or she may order the manufacturer to purchase the vehicle or order them to provide you with a new vehicle. You would only be required to pay some appropriate amount for the mileage on the vehicle. This amount is generally reasonable, compared to the cost of a new vehicle.

As a commercial litigator, I have used the program successfully in the past. If you think you have a lemon, consider the program. Of course, you can always file a complaint under the lemon law or other traditional litigation methods if you don’t accept the arbitrator’s decision.

Charles Ashdown is a partner in the general business department at Strauss & Troy. He is a well-known authority on motor vehicles — just ask him. If you have any questions about a possible lemon, or cars in general, contact Charles at ccashdown@strausstroy.com or 513-629-9464.