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Use-Value-Safety Three Essentials of The Lemon Law

  Norman Taylor & Associates
  November 6, 2008

In the Lemon Law, the concept of substantial impairment of the usevalue or safety of a new motor vehicle to the buyer or lessee is one of the basic tests that determine the validity of a case. Obviously the consumer’s viewpoint of what is substantial and what the manufacturer considers substantial is very different. It is our business to ensure that when the consumer’s car engine dies on the freeway during rush hour it isn’t treated the same as a broken cup holder. In this engine dying on the freeway example, all three criteria are substantially impaired. That’s an easy one.

It’s bad enough that your new car, motor home or boat loses 10% of its value immediately after you drive it away from the dealership. I want to put a number on this so you’ll really feel the pain. I know it’s mean; sorry about that. If you paid $50,000 dollars for your car it’s only worth $45,000 when you arrive home after you sign the contract. This being the case, anything that further impairs the value is going to get your attention big time.

Let’s take a quick look at Use. You buy a car to get from one place to another as efficiently as the roads and highways permit. The engine has sufficient strength to get you in your driveway without stalling. All of the essential components of the vehicle do what they’re supposed to do. All of the bells and whistles bell and whistle. You can navigate around the world if the software doesn’t drop a digit and tell you you’re in Kansas with Dorothy and Toto instead of downtown Pasadena—where you really are. To put a point on it, a car’s purpose is first to provide reliable transportation. If you can’t use it to get from home to work and back, or if you are spending an inordinate amount of time in the repair shop for warranty repairs, it doesn’t qualify as useful.

How about value? This is easy, although the manufacturers usually have a different yardstick. Who knew? You’ve had your new truck for a about a year and you’ve had the unfortunate experience of a variety of problems with the vehicle, all that required that you return it to the dealer for warranty repairs. In particular, let’s say one of those problems was bubble spots appearing beneath the paint. They weren’t huge open flakes. You can see them and so can your friends and relatives. Maybe they are polite and don’t ask you why you don’t wash the truck. The basic fact is that if you decided you wanted to sell your new truck and buy something else, you’re going to disclose to the prospective buyer all the problems you’ve been experiencing for the past year. You ask for the Blue Book price and a potential buyer says, “Huh? Dude…what about these blotches in the paint, and the extensive repair history on the car?” What are you going to say? The fact is you have not had the experience of a new car owner. Your experience has been more akin to purchasing a used vehicle with serious problems. The value of the vehicle has been substantially impaired to you – the consumer. It’s not what you thought you were buying.

Now let’s look at safety. It seems as though it should be fairly cut and dried. It’s not. Few things in the law are as simple as they should be. There ought to be an adrenaline test. For example, if your vehicle through a failure to do something it was designed to do—like stop quickly in a straight line—puts you in a situation where your heart rate shoots up like a loan shark’s interest rate, that situation should be declared unsafe. Okay, that’s bit whimsical and the manufacturer’s defense might argue that you shouldn’t have been looking at the pretty girl on the street corner. However, if you are on the freeway and traffic suddenly begins to slow, and you hit the brakes and your foot goes to the floor, this is impaired safety. The same could be said of constant SRS (Safety Restraint System) problems or stalling while driving. When the warning light comes on and the folks at the dealership tell you nothing was wrong and all they do is reset the computer, or they take it for a spin around the block and tell you they could not find the problem, do you quit believing the warning, or give up and “cope” with your defect? I don’t think so.

I am certain that everyone reading this article has had one or more of the categories described above. It’s one of the reasons why we are here. To the manufacturers there is no such thing as a problem that reduces the use, value or safety of a vehicle and they will keep asserting this even as you discover that your new truck is so underpowered it won’t tow your son’s Hotwheels and that the repair history (which the potential buyer insists on seeing) shows more visits to the dealer than people who bought the 7 series BMW. And of course safety: I suppose as you are extracted from your burning wreck by the “Jaws of Life” the manufacturer might admit that that little problem they have been having with the fuel system was at fault: Probably not. Remember the Ford Pinto?

This is what we do. We help you sort out what is substantial impairment of the usevalue, and safety of your vehicle. When we talk, the manufacturers listen, to paraphrase an old stockbroker advertisement. If you have questions about how to determine substantial impairment, give us a call at (818) 244-3905 or visit our website at

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