California Lemon Law (Updated for 2021)

There are still a lot of very positive things about living in California.  One is the California lemon law, one of the best lemon laws in the United States.

“Lemon laws” are those laws that consumers use to have cars or other vehicles (including RV’s, motorcycles and boats) repurchased by manufacturers and dealers when they cannot repair defects in the vehicles within a reasonable number of repair attempts under the warranty.  Usually manufacturers or dealers expect at least 2 to 3 repair attempts for the same defect before they will consider a repurchase.  Obviously, more repair attempts makes a stronger case.  For a more serious defect, like brake failure or stalling at freeway speeds, manufacturers and dealers generally will consider a buyback even after one repair attempt.  For a less serious defect, more repairs are required before the consumer has a good lemon law claim.  The California lemon law does not afford a remedy for vehicles with trivial defects.

California’s lemon law is called the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, and has been the law in California since 1970.  In general, consumers have the legal right to have their vehicles repurchased if the manufacturer or dealer cannot repair defects in the vehicle within a reasonable number of repair attempts.  If the manufacturer or dealer refuses to repurchase the vehicle, consumers have the legal right to pursue their case in the courts.  If the consumer wins, the manufacturer or the dealer pays the consumer’s attorney’s fees.  This permits most consumers to have an attorney on a contingency basis for a “lemon law” case.

The California lemon law applies to vehicle leases as well as vehicle purchases.  For a “lemon law” case on a leased vehicle, the consumer’s remedy generally would be the value of the lease instead of the full purchase price.

The California lemon law applies to used vehicles when they come with a warranty.  This is particularly important for consumers who buy “certified pre-owned” vehicles which come with the manufacturer’s “certified pre-owned” warranty.  If you buy a car with the balance of the manufacturer’s warranty, the California lemon law would apply to any defects which arose within the remaining warranty period.  

Similar to buying a used car with the balance of the manufacturer’s warranty, consumers have California lemon law rights where they buy used cars and receive warranties or service contracts from dealers.  However, dealer warranties are usually for a much shorter duration and the consumer often has to act quickly if he or she wants to pursue the California lemon law.

Consumers have no California lemon law rights if they buy a used vehicle “as-is”.  There may be fraud claims available, but there are no breach of warranty claims under the California lemon law.

In addition to a repurchase of the vehicle, the consumer can usually obtain reimbursement of his first year’s registration plus any tax, title and license fees, as well as any incidental expenses like towing charges if these are related to the vehicle’s defects.  Consumers can also get reimbursement of insurance expenses for the period of time that the vehicle could not be driven because of the defect.

The California lemon law also has a “civil penalty” provision for when the manufacturer or dealer willfully violates the law.  If the consumer can prove that the manufacturer or dealer willfully refused to repurchase the vehicle when the manufacturer knew that it should, then the consumer can obtain a civil penalty of up to two times his or her actual damages, in addition to the repurchase amount.  This usually adds up to around three times the repurchase amount.

As stated above, the consumer who prevails in a lemon law claim has his or her attorney’s fees and costs paid by the manufacturer.  This permits attorneys to take these cases on a contingency basis in most instances.

In addition to looking at the number of repair attempts for any one defect, California’s lemon law also looks at the total number of days at the dealer for repairs for any number of defects.  Thus, if a vehicle has 5 different defects and is out of service at the repair shop for 30 or more days, this can qualify for a repurchase under the California lemon law.

The California lemon law has a legal presumption that can benefit consumers with particularly aggravated lemon law claims.  A legal presumption operates to shift the burden of proof in a civil case.  Normally, in a civil case, the consumer has the burden of proving his or her case.  If the consumer’s case fits certain circumstances, the burden of proof shifts to the manufacturer or dealer to prove that the vehicle does not suffer from the defect or that it was fixed under the warranty.  There are three circumstances in which the consumer can claim the presumption: four repair attempts for the same defect within the first 18 months or 18,000 miles on the vehicle; 30 or more days out of service for repairs to any defect or defects within the first 18 months or 18,000 miles; or two repair attempts to a defect which constitutes a serious, safety-related life-threatening defect within the first 18 months or 18,000 miles.  The consumer must notify the manufacturer directly of the need to repair the defect before he or she can claim the presumption.  

Remember that you can have a California lemon law case even if your case does not fit into the legal presumption.  For any defect (other than a trivial defect) that arises under the warranty and which the manufacturer or dealer cannot repair within a reasonable number of attempts, the consumer has rights under the California lemon law and should consult with my office about the best way to proceed.

Copyright © 2013, 2021 by Robert F. Brennan, Esq.  All rights reserved.  Unauthorized duplication or transmission may result in prosecution.

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