Understanding Washington Lemon Law

American car dealerships sell roughly 150,000 cars each year classified as lemons: cars with repeated, unfixable problems. Lemons can come from any manufacturer: Toyota, Chrysler, Ford and almost every other manufacturer has built lemon vehicles over the years.

American car dealerships sell roughly 150,000 cars each year classified as lemons: cars with repeated, unfixable problems. Lemons can come from any manufacturer: Toyota, Chrysler, Ford and almost every other manufacturer has built lemon vehicles over the years.

Lemon laws” enacted across the United States help protect consumers who purchase defective vehicles and provide a legal procedure to compensate them for their losses. Additionally, a powerful federal law known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act provides protection for consumers who purchase cars that are having problems and have an unexpired manufacturer’s warranty.

Washington’s lemon law covers new vehicles primarily designed for the transportation of persons or property over public highways. Vehicles must be originally purchased or leased at retail from a dealer or leasing company in Washington, and be initially registered in the state. Vehicles can also be covered if they are temporarily licensed for a nonresident member of the U.S. armed forces who has applied for out-of-state registration.

Washington’s lemon law also covers motorcycles, trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating of less than 19,000 pounds, and the self-propelled chassis of motorhomes.

The Washington lemon law provides a special provision for U.S. service members. It covers their vehicles regardless of where they were bought, as long as it is a new vehicle and the service member is stationed in Washington.

The Washington lemon law does not cover new vehicles bought or leased by a business as part of a fleet of ten or more vehicles at one time or under a single business purchase or lease agreement.

Washington’s lemon law defines a “consumer” as anyone who purchases or leases a new vehicle other than for the purposes of resale or sublease. The lemon law also covers a “subsequent transferee,” defined as someone who acquires a new vehicle within the manufacturer’s written warranty period. For example, if someone is given the vehicle as a gift by the purchaser, the recipient is the subsequent transferee.

The lemon law covers any “nonconformity” of the car. The law defines nonconformity as a “defect, serious safety defect, or condition that does not conform to the warranty and substantially impairs the use, value, or safety of the new motor vehicle.”

The law’s definition doesn’t include any problem stemming from abuse, neglect or unauthorized modification or alteration of the vehicle.

The law goes on to define a serious safety defect as “a life-threatening malfunction or nonconformity that impedes the consumer’s ability to control or operate the new motor vehicle for ordinary use or reasonable intended purposes or creates a risk of fire or explosion.”

The law defines “substantially impair” as rendering the new vehicle unreliable, unsafe for ordinary use, or diminishing its resale value below the average resale value for comparable unimpaired vehicles.

The manufacturer must repair any nonconformity if the consumer reports it within the period of the written warranty, or within the “eligibility period.” The law defines the eligibility period as two years after the date of the vehicle’s original delivery to the consumer, or within the first 24,000 miles of operation – whichever comes first.

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The consumer must allow the manufacturer a “reasonable number of repair attempts” to fix the nonconformity. The Washington lemon law defines a reasonable number of repair attempts of a serious safety defect being subject to diagnosis and repair twice with no success, or four times for a less serious nonconformity. At least one of the attempts must be made during the coverage period of the manufacturer’s warranty. The lemon law’s provisions also take effect if the vehicle is out of service for 30 calendar days because of a nonconformity or serious safety defect.

Motor homes in Washington fall under a different standard for “reasonable number of attempts.” The standard is met if a motor home has been serviced one or more times for a serious safety defect or three times for a less serious nonconformity without success. The law’s provisions also take effect if the motor home is out of service for 60 calendar days or longer.

The manufacturer must repurchase or replace the vehicle if they or their agents are unable to repair the nonconformity after a reasonable number of attempts. They must do so within 40 days of the consumer’s written request to the manufacturer’s corporate dispute resolution zone or regional office.

Washington’s lemon law compels manufacturers to pay the purchase price, collateral charges and incidental costs when repurchasing a vehicle. Collateral charges include sales and use taxes, arbitration service fees, unused license fees and more. Incidental costs include costs incurred by the consumer in connection with the repair of the vehicle in question, including towing charges and alternative transportation.

Manufacturers are allowed to deduct a “reasonable offset” for use. This is calculated from the number of miles traveled between the original purchase of the vehicle and the date of the first attempts to repair the nonconformity.

Manufacturers buying back a leased vehicle must pay the pay-off amount to the lessor, as well as lease payments, collateral charges and incidental costs to the lessee. They can also deduct a reasonable use allowance as well.

The Washington lemon law requires manufacturers to provide an identical or reasonably equivalent vehicle in the case of replacement. That includes any service contract, undercoating, rustproofing, and factory or dealer installed options. The law says the manufacturer must pay sales tax, license and registration fees for the replacement vehicle, along with refunding any incidental costs.

A consumer accepting a replacement vehicle must compensate the manufacturer for a reasonable offset of use, calculated in the same way as in the case of repurchase.

The Washington lemon law’s provisions covering refund or replacement don’t apply until the consumer has first resorted to an “informal dispute settlement procedure,” i.e. arbitration. The Washington Attorney General has established a motor vehicle arbitration board to settle disputes between consumers and manufacturers. Consumers must submit their disputes either to the Attorney General’s arbitration board, or through the manufacturer’s informal dispute settlement mechanism before seeking relief in the court system.

In some instances, arbitration can allow for a faster resolution of conflicts between consumers and manufacturers. Arbitration hearings usually last only one day, and take place in a much less formal setting than a court. Consumers should bring all documents relating to the vehicle and the repair process, including the letters exchanged with the manufacturer. They should also arrange for witnesses to appear at the hearing, including friends who have witnessed the vehicle’s problems.

However, arbitration often ends with an outcome unfavorable to the consumer. The third party arbitrator may award the consumer with additional repair attempts, which doesn’t provide any remedy they didn’t have before. They may also decide to dismiss the claim, siding with the manufacturer. The law makes no mention of the ability to recoup attorney’s fees during arbitration. Fortunately, the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act allows for consumers to sue for attorney’s fees alongside damage awards in court.

The manufacturer must abide by the decision of the arbitrator, while the consumer does not. If dissatisfied with the outcome, a consumer can bring civil action in the civil court system. By filing a claim under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, Washington consumers can hire lawyers who will represent them without the vehicle owner having to pay any attorneys’ fees directly out of their pocket. The Act provides that the vehicle manufacturer shall pay the claimants’ reasonable attorneys’ fees if the claimant prevails against the manufacturer. Lemonlawusa.org encourages vehicle owners with a lemon to obtain legal counsel. You can bet the car manufacturers have legal counsel at the ready to help defend against lemon law claims both in arbitration and in court. Shouldn’t you have competent legal counsel in your corner?

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