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02/16/12 It's The Law: Florida Has A Lemon Law

Question: I bought a new car a few months ago and it has a lot of problems. It has been in the shop more than on the road. Doesn't Florida have a law that will make the dealer give me a new car?

Answer: A new car with a lot of problems is generally known as a lemon. In 1983, Florida enacted the Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act, commonly known as the "Lemon Law." The Lemon Law is the legislature's effort to provide consumers with a simpler, cheaper, and more effective method of resolving disputes with motor vehicle manufacturers.

The purchaser of a defective motor vehicle can still sue the manufacturer. But, the Lemon Law provides an alternative path involving informal settlement procedures and arbitration as alternatives to court action. The current Lemon Law includes amendments by the legislature to improve consumer protection, including its requirement that remedy granted in arbitration must be either a replacement vehicle or a refund.

The Lemon Law gives consumers an option when attempting to force a manufacturer of a new motor vehicle to meet its warranty obligations. That means the consumer's rights can be limited by the warranty. It also means the Lemon Law does not apply to claims against the dealer.

The Lemon Law also does not apply to business or commercial purchasers. It is limited to people acquiring a new motor vehicle primarily for personal, family or household purposes and extends to any person acquiring the vehicle for the same purposes during the Lemon Law rights period. The Lemon Law rights period is the period ending twenty-four months after the date of the original delivery of a motor vehicle to a consumer. Motor vehicles within the Lemon Law are limited to new vehicles, propelled by power other than muscular power, to transport persons or property, including a recreational vehicle and leased vehicles. Excluded are vehicles running only upon tracks, off-road vehicles, trucks over 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight, motorcycles, mopeds, or the living facility of recreational vehicles.

The Lemon Law mandates that the manufacturer comply with its warranty. If three attempts have been made to repair the same nonconformity, or if the vehicles Is out of service by reason of repair of one or more nonconformities, for a cumulative total of fifteen or more days, the consumer may notify the manufacturer in writing to give the manufacturer an opportunity to inspect or repair the vehicle. If the vehicle cannot be repaired to conform with the warranty after a reasonable number of attempts, the manufacturer must repurchase the motor vehicle and refund the full purchase price to the consumer, less a reasonable offset for use, or replace the vehicle with a motor vehicle acceptable to the consumer and the consumer paying the manufacturer a reasonable offset for use of the original vehicle. All of this must be done within forty days. It is presumed that a reasonable number of attempts have been undertaken to repair the vehicle if the same nonconformity has been subject to repair at least three times by the manufacturer or its authorized service agent, plus a final attempt by the manufacturer, or the motor vehicle has been out of service by reason of repair of one or more nonconformities for a cumulative total of thirty or more days (sixty or more days in the case of recreational vehicles).

As you might guess, the manufacturers do not always pay or provide a replacement vehicle within the statutory time frame. In those cases, the consumer may pursue nonjudicial settlement procedures. If the manufacturer has established a procedure that complies with both federal regulations and Florida's lemon law and has informed the consumer of how and where to file a claim, the consumer must utilize the manufacturer's procedure. The manufacturer's procedure is required to establish a neutral decision maker and allow for later court action if the consumer is dissatisfied with the result.

If the manufacturer does not have a qualified dispute settlement procedure or if the manufacturer does not require use of that procedure, the consumer may pursue a claim with the Florida New Motor Vehicle Arbitration Board. Board members are appointed by the attorney general and hear cases at locations throughout the State. Each region of the board consists of up to eight members, and at least one member of each region must have expertise in motor vehicle mechanics. Claims are heard and decided by a three member panel. If either party is unhappy with the decision, that party may file an appeal with the circuit court.

Attorney's fees are not generally recoverable in arbitration under the law. But, if court action is pursued and the consumer is successful, attorney's fees in the court action are recoverable.

Although the Lemon Law arbitration procedure is intended to be "consumer friendly," the paper work and procedures can be confusing and difficult. An attorney can help organize documents and present evidence in a manner most likely to persuade the arbitrators. If you lack the funds to retain counsel for the entire process, help with preparation of the written submission would be a cheaper alternative and could prove invaluable. If you are unable to afford an attorney, the good news is that the arbitration procedures do not follow strict rules of evidence and the decision-makers are usually more forgiving in presentation of cases than would be found in court.

By: William G. Morris, Esquire

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