A Consumer Guide to the Virginia Lemon Law

By: Audrey Henderson

We’ve all heard stories about friends or family who have purchased a “lemon” vehicle from a dealership and the vehicle had so many problems that it was in the shop more than on the road.  These “lemon” vehicles got their name from the Virginia Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act of 1948 (also known as the “Lemon Law”).  The Lemon Law provides vehicle owners with a remedy against the dealer for this type of defective vehicle.

To begin with, the Lemon Law applies to new and used vehicles or secondary or subsequent purchasers, as long as the second owner is entitled to the benefits of the original warranty of the first purchaser.  Subaru of Am. v. Peters, 256 Va. 43, 48 (1998); Pattern v. Chrysler Corp., 41 Va. Cir. 473, 474 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1997).  The Lemon Law also applies to leased motor vehicles.  Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.11.  Finally, although the Lemon Law does not include motor homes, it does include the self-propelled motorized chasses of motor homes, which is defined as “the frame, wheels, and engine of a motor vehicle, but not the body.” Parks v. Newmar Corp., 384 F. Supp. 2d 966, 969 (W.D. Va. 2005).

There are four considerations to determine if the lemon law is an available remedy for your defective vehicle:

  1. Who sold you the vehicle?
  2. For what purpose do you use the vehicle?
  3. Did the purchase include a warranty?
  4. How long ago did you purchase the vehicle?

Who Sold You the Vehicle?

The Lemon Law requires manufacturers (Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Chrysler, etc.), as well as their agents, and authorized dealers (thing of car dealership), to make any repairs that are necessary to fulfill any warranties issued to the consumer of the vehicles.  In other words, the vehicle you purchased from a private party on Craig’s List does not qualify (unless the warranty from an authorized dealer is also transferred to you – see below).

For What Purpose Do You Use the Vehicle?

The Virginia Code requires that the vehicle be used in “substantial part for personal, family, or household” use.  § 59.1-207.11.  Examples include driving back and forth to work, taking your kids to soccer practice, going out to buy groceries, etc.  There can be no recovery under the Lemon Law for commercial purposes (i.e., vehicles used for the purpose of business).  Durso v. Chrysler Corp., 41 Va. Cir. 211, 213 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1996).  Thus, if a business entity is seeking redress under the Lemon Law, there is no remedy unless the complaint contains “allegations in good faith that [the business entity] is a ‘consumer’ within the definition of the Act.”  Id.  However, the business entity cannot be a corporation because the definition of “consumer” under the Virginia Lemon Law excludes corporations.  Gary Hart Mach. Corp. v. Mercedes-Benz of N. Am., 41 Va. Cir. 249, 250 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1997).  Finally, if the first purchaser uses the motor vehicle for commercial purposes and the subsequent purchaser uses it as a consumer good, then the subsequent purchaser can still file a claim within the statutory time period described below.  Subaru of Am. v. Peters, 256 Va. 43, 49 (1998).

Did the Purchase Include a Warranty?

The Lemon Law serves as a remedy to the consumer if the manufacturer, its agents, or authorized dealers “[did] not conform to any applicable warranty by repairing or correcting any defect or condition . . . which significantly impairs the use, market value, or safety of the motor vehicle.”  Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.13(A).  If the manufacturer or dealer does not correct a faulty vehicle within the express warranty by correcting a defect after a “reasonable number of attempts,” the manufacturer shall either replace or repurchase the vehicle.  Id.

A “reasonable number of attempts” have been undertaken if: (1) the same nonconformity has been repaired three or more times by the manufacturer, its agents, or authorized dealers; (2) the defect is a serious safety issue that is life-threatening and has been repaired one or more times by the manufacturer, its agents, or authorized dealers; or (3) the vehicle is out of service for a cumulative total of thirty calendar days.  Id. § 59.1-207.13(B).

How Long Ago Did You Purchase the Vehicle?

Assuming the warranty still applies, a cause of action must be brought within eighteen months from the date of the original delivery of the motor vehicle to the consumer.  Id. § 59.1-207.11.  It does not matter when the vehicle was actually manufactured originally.  During this period, the consumer can report any nonconformity to the manufacturer and pursue any rights provided by the Lemon Law.  Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.11.  Furthermore, this eighteen-month period can be extended under two situations.

The first situation is where the consumer and the manufacturer attempt in good faith to settle the dispute pursuant to an informal dispute settlement.  Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.16.  The informal dispute settlement procedure is not defined in the Act and it doesn’t have to be a formal or structured arbitration process.  Smith v. GMC, 35 Va. Cir. 112, 118 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1995).  It does have to involve a decision made by someone other than the manufacturer or the consumer in the decision-making process.  Id.  If the dispute settlement resolution is not satisfactory to the consumer, then the consumer has twelve months from the date of the final action taken by the manufacturer in the dispute settlement procedure.  Id.  To clarify, “a consumer who uses the dispute settlement procedure may file an action either within the eighteen month limitation or within twelve months of the manufacturer’s final action in the settlement procedure, whichever is longer.”  Price v. Freedom Ford, Inc., 46 Va. Cir. 129, 131 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1998).

The second situation is where the manufacturer has been notified within the eighteen month period, but the defect still exists or has not been repaired by the manufacturer, its agent, or authorized dealer.  Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.13(C).  Notice can be accomplished upon (1) the mailing of the complaint to the manufacturer; (2) the manufacturer has responded in writing to the complaint; or (3) a factory representative has inspected the vehicle or has met with the consumer or an authorized dealer regarding the nonconformity. Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.11.  The eighteen month time limitation will be extended until the vehicle has been repaired and conforms to the warranty.  Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.12.

Here’s a new vehicle example:  Suppose you purchased a brand new 2015 Ford Focus on June 1, 2015, and the car is under a three-year warranty.  That gives you until June 1, 2018 to bring in the car for repairs (usually free of charge).  During this three year period, you start to have trouble with the car, and you realize that the defect is covered by the motor vehicle manufacturer’s express warranty, so you bring the car the dealership who sold it to you for maintenance.  Once repaired, you take the car home, but the same problem comes up again and again.  From the time you received the car on June 1, 2015, you’ll have eighteen months to file a claim.  Filing a claim must be done within that eighteen month period, unless you fit into two of the exceptions described above (dispute settlement agreement and notice).

Here’s a used car example:  You bought a used 2005 Chevy Cavalier from the dealership on June 1, 2015.  The car also comes with a three-year warranty.  The same rules apply.  You have eighteen months from the time you received the car on June 1, 2015 to file a cause of action under the Lemon Law.  Again, it is irrelevant when the car was actually manufactured.  The dates and times that matter are when you first took possession of the car and how long the warranty lasts.  It is unlikely that you’ll have a cause of action under the Lemon Law after the warranty expires because at that point, the car has been driven for too long (unless one of the extension circumstances apply).

The Lemon Law was enacted to protect consumers of newly purchased motor vehicles – whether the vehicle itself is new or used.  Varisce v. Ford Motor Co., 46 Va. Cir. 270, 271 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1998).  If you are having trouble with your newly purchased vehicle and the authorized dealer has not been able to fix it after three or more attempts, or your vehicle is in the shop for more than 30 consecutive days, you may have a cause of action under the Virginia Lemon Law.  If your vehicle is a lemon, the Lemon Law requires the manufacturer to provide you with a full refund of the purchase price, or replace the motor vehicle with a comparable motor vehicle acceptable to you, the consumer.  Va. Code Ann. § 59.1-207.13(A).

If you think you may have purchased or leased a lemon, please contact Steven Krieger Law for a confidential consultation.  The consultation will include a discussion of your specific facts  and how you may recover against the dealer.

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Steven Krieger and guests (lawyers and non-lawyers) will periodically post about topics relevant to his firm and practice areas. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

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