New Jersey Lemon Law

After spending thousands of dollars for a new or used car, consumers reasonably anticipate that their vehicle will meet specific standards of quality, performance and reliability. Indeed the phenomenon of getting stuck with a new vehicle that proves to be resistant to repair is so common that the term "lemon" has been incorporated into our daily language. After all, most of us believe that the manufacturer will stand behind its product.

Generally speaking, a "lemon" is an automobile with a defect that substantially impairs the use, value or safety of the vehicle that cannot be repaired. Whether or not the defect in a vehicle is of such a nature must be determined on a case-by-case basis since the law does not define a substantial impairment of the use, value or safety. Certainly defects that cause the vehicle not to start, not to stop, or problems that affect one's ability to operate the vehicle would be "substantial impairments." However, significant paint defects or defects to key components, such as the air conditioning system, might also be considered "substantial impairments" as well.

During the 70's and 80's the consumer was effectively closed off from the legal system.

Adoption of the Lemon Law in New Jersey was accompanied by express legislative findings that the purchase of a new motor vehicle is ?a major, high cost consumer transaction? and that the absence of an effective procedure for correcting defects in new vehicles results in a "major hardship and an unacceptable economic burden on the consumer." Under the law, a manufacturer or dealer is obligated to make all necessary repairs to correct defects within the first two years or 18,000 miles from the date of delivery, whichever period is reached first. It is during this "term of protection" that the manufacturer or dealer must be notified of the defect and is obligated to make all necessary repairs to correct the defects. If the problem is not repaired within the allotted time period, a purchaser is entitled to a refund or replacement of the vehicle.

The New Jersey Lemon Law applies to new vehicles that are sold, leased, or registered in the State of New Jersey, including automobiles, trucks and motorcycles. The law does not cover the living quarters of motor homes or vehicles that are designed for commercial use. Defects that are caused by attempts to repair or modify the vehicle by a person other than the manufacturer, its agent or authorized dealer are also not covered.

A Lemon Law claim for a new car must be filed within the first two years after the purchase, lease or registration OR before the odometer reaches 18,000 miles. A claim can be filed if the mileage/odometer prerequisite is met and; (1) three or more attempts to repair or correct substantially the same defect have been made and the defect continues to exist or (2) the automobile is out of service for a total of 20 cumulative calendar days and the defect continues to exist.

On July 3, 1996, the New Jersey Used Car Lemon Law took effect, providing protection to those who purchase used motor vehicles. Coverage is not provided for vehicles sold for less than $3,000; vehicles that are more than seven model years old; vehicles that have been declared a total loss by an insurance company; vehicles that have odometer readings of more than 100,000 miles and vehicles that were purchased through private transactions and not from a dealership.

Before a claim can be filed under the Lemon Law, the manufacturer must be given one final chance to repair the defect. A letter must be sent to the manufacturer, NOT the dealer, by certified mail, return receipt requested, advising that a claim might exist and that the manufacturer is being given one "final attempt" to repair the defect. The "final attempt" letter must include the date and place of purchase or lease, the vehicle identification number, the dates of repair attempts at the dealership, a list of the vehicle's past and current problems and a statement that these problems substantially impair the use, value and/or safety of the vehicle. A sample "final attempt" letter should be obtained from the Lemon Law Unit of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. This letter should be mailed to the manufacturer after the second unsuccessful repair attempt or after the 20 cumulative calendar day period and must be sent before 18,000 miles or two years, whichever occurs first.

Cars cannot be completely lemon proofed. Lemons seem to generate a continuing stream of problems, some minor and others more serious, some of which can be fixed and others that can never be repaired satisfactorily. Lemon Law procedures are very specific and it is imperative that precautionary measures be followed after the purchase of a new or used vehicle.

1. Obtain receipts for all work that is performed on the vehicle, regardless of whether it is covered by the warranty. It is important that everything be in writing and be legible. If a receipt is not given, go back to the dealership and demand one.

2. Retain all receipts for any periodic maintenance in a folder.

3. Document everything in an organized date book. Obtain names and titles of everyone dealt with at the dealer and the manufacturer.

4. Document all telephone calls that are made to and received from the dealership in the date book.

5. After gathering all of the related repair orders and other service documents, it is important to keep track of the following information:

  • the number of trips to the dealership or repair shop and the repair order or bill numbers for a particular problem;
  • the number of days without the vehicle;
  • whether or not a loaner vehicle was provided and costs of alternative transportation;
  • any towing charges that might have been incurred.

6. Prepare a written checklist of the work to be performed on the vehicle every time it is taken in for service. Speak with the service manager of the dealer and review all of the procedures.

All of these steps arm you with information necessary to tackle the manufacturer's complaint system. Good organization makes it easy to spot and document a defect. After the procedural requirements have been met and the final repair attempt letter has been sent to the manufacturer, the consumer still bears the burden of proving that the defect continues to exist, despite repair attempts. Even if the purchaser can establish that the nonconformity remains, a substantial impairment of the use, value or safety of the vehicle must still be proven!

The most typical dealer or manufacturer responses to lemon law actions include claims of improper math - the owner has not allowed them the mandatory number of repair attempts. This can be based on either the customer's failure to keep service receipts or on the contention that the repairs were not similar in nature. Another common response is that the nonconformity is "normal." For instance, when confronted with an alignment problem, some dealers will contend that the vehicle meets the manufacturer's specifications. A dealer might also indicate on a service receipt that it is unable to duplicate a problem, claiming that the defect does not exist. On the other hand, if a defect does in fact exist, the manufacturer might claim that it is a result of abuse, neglect or unauthorized modifications or alterations of the vehicle by someone other than an authorized dealership.

Although you might be experiencing obvious problems with your vehicle, chances are that you will not be able to get the manufacturer to replace the car yourself. Every car manufacturer has a "customer satisfaction" or "quality care" department that you will be referred to, often placing you on a long, twisted, unresponsive route back to the dealership. This maze is designed to provoke you into selling the car, trading it in or buying another one.

It is also helpful to invoke complaining strategies "outside the system." Your first letter can be utilized as a basic tool in an expanded complaint campaign. The number of people outside of the automobile industry that are notified of your problem depends on the degree of your outrage, resources, and interest in more responsible consumer protection in the future. In general, notifying appropriate officials can only be to your advantage. Send copies of your complaint letter to various organizations such as local and national consumer groups, local and state consumer protection agencies and federal agencies. Some organizations cull complaint letters to generate broad relief such as recalls, which benefits not only the aggrieved parties but all others similarly situated. The Center for Auto Safety , an independent consumer group located in Washington, D.C., serves the citizens of every state. The Center can provide helpful information relating to safety defects, recall histories and referrals to the correct agency or proper source. The Center also provides safety related or defect information to help the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) carry on its investigations in these areas. Complaints from owners are the NHTSA's primary source of information on safety related problems and they should be notified of your complaints.

If you are successful in pursuing your Lemon Law claim, the manufacturer may offer to replace your original vehicle, but you do not have to accept the offer. If you choose to receive a refund, you will be entitled to receive the full purchase price of the original vehicle, minus a reasonable allowance for use of the vehicle. The full refund includes but is not limited to sales tax, license and registration fees, finance charges, towing, costs of vehicle repairs paid by for you, rental car charges while the car was out of service, attorney's fees, expert witness fees and the Lemon Law filing fee.

Know your rights and know them well. Even if your "lemon" has no power - you certainly will!

Lemon Law Unit, N.J. Division of Consumer Affairs, P.O. Box 45026, Newark, New Jersey 07102 (973-504-6226)

Center for Auto Safety, 2001 S Street NW, Suite 410, Washington, D.C. 20009 (202) 328-770

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 7th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. 20590 (1-888-327-4236)
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