California Lemon Law - A Complete Guide

The following guide provides an in-depth look at California’s Lemon Law and how it protects new car buyers from defective vehicles.

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Buying a new car should be an exciting experience. After hours of research and test drives, you finally drive your shiny new vehicle off the lot, filled with hope for carefree commutes and road trips. But sometimes, that new car ends up being a major letdown. Despite multiple repair attempts, it still has significant defects that diminish its safety, value or usefulness. When this happens in California, consumers have important legal rights under the state’s lemon law.

This guide will provide an in-depth look at California’s Lemon Law, known officially as the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. We’ll cover who and what vehicles are protected, how to qualify for relief, and the different remedies available. With this information, California consumers will understand their rights when purchasing a defective vehicle and how to exercise them. Our goal is to empower car buyers so they can make informed decisions if their new car turns out to be a lemon.

What is California’s Lemon Law?

California’s Lemon Law is a powerful consumer protection for buyers of defective new vehicles. Enacted in 1982, the law forces vehicle manufacturers to take responsibility when they sell lemons in California.

The law requires manufacturers to either refund the full purchase price or replace vehicles that meet the lemon law criteria. They must also cover attorney fees and other expenses incurred by the car buyer related to the defective vehicle.

California’s Lemon Law has undergone amendments over the years to expand and clarify consumer rights. The current statute can be found in the California Civil Code, Sections 1790-1795.8. It provides some of the strongest lemon law protections in the nation for new car buyers.

Understanding the law’s provisions is key so consumers can act quickly to start the lemon law process if they purchase a defective vehicle. With prompt action, the financial burden of repairs, loss of use, and diminished value can be removed via the law’s remedies.

Vehicles Covered by California’s Lemon Law

California’s Lemon Law has wide application in terms of vehicles covered. However, some specific conditions must be met for vehicles to qualify for lemon law protection:

New Vehicles Purchased in California

The Lemon Law applies to new vehicles purchased or leased in the state of California from a licensed dealer. This includes cars, pickup trucks, vans, SUVs and crossover vehicles used for personal, family or household purposes. It also covers new business vehicles up to 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight like work vans and pickups.

To qualify as “new”, the vehicle must still be under the original manufacturer’s warranty when the defect arises. This is normally 3 years or 36,000 miles but could be longer for certain types of coverage like the powertrain warranty.

The first defect must occur within this new vehicle warranty period. However, the buyer can still pursue lemon law remedies even if the warranty expires during the repair attempts.

New Vehicle Leases

The Lemon Law provides equal protection to both purchased and leased new vehicles in California. New cars leased through dealerships typically have a manufacturer’s warranty also.

As long as the defect arises during the warranty period, the same lemon law criteria applies. The law does not distinguish between owners and lessees.

This is important protection for lessees. They may not own the vehicle in the traditional sense, but they still suffer loss of use and diminished value from defects. Under the Lemon Law, lessees can pursue a replacement vehicle or prorated refund based on payments made on the defective leased car.

Used Vehicles

California’s Lemon Law only applies to new vehicles under their original factory warranty. Once a vehicle title is transferred to a second owner, it loses eligibility for lemon law coverage.

However, used car buyers do have some protections under the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and California’s general warranty laws. If the vehicle is still under a remaining factory powertrain or emissions warranty, significant defects may be covered for repair at no cost. Used car buyers should review any remaining warranty coverage closely.

Commercial Vehicles

As mentioned above, California’s Lemon Law does cover new commercial vehicles like vans and pickups up to 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW). This allows small business owners and independent contractors to pursue lemon law remedies if their new work vehicles have defects.

However, large commercial trucks over 10,000 pounds GVW are not covered. Business owners with large truck fleets do not receive lemon law protection. The law is intended for consumer and light business vehicles rather than heavy commercial trucks and tractor trailers.

In summary, the lemon law broadly covers new passenger vehicles purchased or leased in California that develop defects under their factory warranty. This empowers consumers who end up with lemons to take action for a refund or replacement vehicle.

Qualifying for Lemon Law Protection

For a defective vehicle to qualify for remedies under California’s Lemon Law, it must meet three general criteria:

  • The vehicle is still under the manufacturer’s original new car warranty when the defect arises
  • The defect substantially impairs the vehicle’s safety, value or usefulness
  • The manufacturer or authorized dealer has been given reasonable attempts to repair the defect

These conditions are designed to identify vehicles with significant, irreparable defects that diminish their value. Minor defects that are easily fixed do not generally qualify as lemons. Let’s examine these qualifying factors in more detail:

Still Under Warranty

As discussed above, the vehicle must still be within the term limits and mileage of the manufacturer’s new car warranty. This is normally 3 years or 36,000 miles but could be longer for certain components.

The first manifestation of the defect must occur within the warranty period to be covered by the Lemon Law. However, the buyer can still pursue remedies even if the warranty expires during the repair attempts. What matters is that the vehicle was still under warranty when the defect arose.

Documentation like repair invoices showing the dates can prove the vehicle was still within the factory warranty. Since defects often take time to properly diagnose, the initial symptoms may start within the warranty but a firm diagnosis may not occur until later.

Substantially Impaired Use, Value or Safety

The Lemon Law is designed to provide relief for serious, irreparable defects rather than minor issues. To qualify, the problem must substantially impair the vehicle’s safety, value or usefulness for normal operation.

Examples would be engine, transmission, brake system defects, electrical system problems, structural/chassis issues, and mold or water leaks. Problems that render the vehicle unsafe to drive clearly qualify as substantial defects.

Issues that just result in inconvenience or diminished value also meet the criteria. For example, a convertible top that won’t close properly or bad odors from water leaks impair normal use. Problems that require lengthy repairs at the dealership represent a substantial loss of use as well.

Reasonable Number of Repair Attempts

In addition to occurring under warranty and involving a serious defect, the buyer must allow the manufacturer a reasonable number of repair attempts. The lemon law does not define an exact number, but rather looks at the circumstances of each case.

In general, if a safety defect cannot be fixed after two attempts, that is considered reasonable. For non-safety defects, four attempts is usually viewed as reasonable. However, fewer attempts may qualify if the defect is difficult to diagnose or repair, causes lengthy shop delays, or poses an immediate safety risk.

The buyer must notify the manufacturer directly or work through an authorized dealer for the repair attempts. The key is giving the manufacturer a fair chance to fix the vehicle before qualifying as a lemon. However, they only get so many tries to address a serious defect before replacement or refund responsibility kicks in.

Types of Lemon Law Vehicle Defects

California’s lemon law covers any defect that impairs the use, value or safety of a new vehicle. Here are some of the most common types of defects that lead to successful lemon law claims:

  • Engine defects – These include oil leaks, blown head gaskets, cracked engine blocks, pistons failure, rod bearings failure. Defects that require engine replacement or rebuild would qualify.
  • Transmission defects – Common issues are gears slipping, complete transmission failure, computer problems causing jerky shifting, torque converter failure. Like the engine, full transmission replacements often indicate a lemon.
  • Electrical defects – Electrical issues like shorts, computer/infotainment system failures, power windows/locks failure, and battery drainage. Vehicles heavily dependent on electronics today are prone to electrical lemons.
  • Brake system defects – Dangerous brake defects like premature wear, rotor/caliper failure, loss of fluid, brake fade, uneven braking, squealing, grinding. Brake problems compromise vehicle safety.
  • Steering/suspension defects – These include uneven tire wear, wheel alignment issues, steering linkage problems, loose steering components, suspension noise, wheel bearings failure.
  • Structural/chassis defects – Major issues with vehicle underpinnings like cracks or fractures in the frame, body components not fitting or sealing properly, doors not closing properly.
  • Water leaks – Leaking door seals, trunks, convertible tops, sunroofs, rear hatches. Water intrusion can lead to mold, mildew smells and electrical failure.
  • Excessive vehicle noise – Whines, rattles, squeaks from the engine, transmission, suspension, wheels, steering, or brake components. Excessive noise levels suggest mechanical defects.

This covers the most common lemon law defects, but is not an exhaustive list. The bottom line is any defect that compromises the safety, use or value of a new vehicle can potentially qualify it as a lemon under California law.

Refund or Replacement Remedies Under the Lemon Law

Once a defective vehicle qualifies under the lemon law criteria, the manufacturer has two options to remedy the situation:


The manufacturer must buy back the defective vehicle and provide a full refund of the purchase price to the buyer. This includes all payments made for the vehicle, including sales tax, license fees, registration costs and other official fees.


The second option is for the manufacturer to replace the lemon vehicle with a new one of the identical make/model. The replacement vehicle must also have the same options and features as the original vehicle. If being replaced, the buyer has the right to demand a refund instead at any point in the process. The choice belongs to the consumer, not the manufacturer.

Either remedy places the financial burden on the manufacturer rather than the buyer. Without the law’s protections, owners would be stuck with the cost of repairs, loss of use, and sharply diminished value. Lemon law refund or replacement removes this heavy financial weight from the buyer’s shoulders.

It is advisable for the buyer to consult with a lemon law attorney first before choosing refund or replacement. An attorney can provide guidance on the best remedy option for your situation. Factors like the vehicle’s age, mileage, loan balance, and repair costs come into play.

Additional Expenses and Compensation

On top of the refund or replacement vehicle, a successful lemon law claim will recoup other costs incurred by the buyer. Under California law, the manufacturer must pay the following:

  • Attorney fees – Hiring a lemon law attorney is key to navigate the process and maximize compensation. Attorney fees must by covered by the manufacturer.
  • Incidental costs – Expenses directly related to the defective vehicle like towing costs, car rental fees during repairs, repair shop diagnostic fees, etc. This compensation can really add up with multiple repair attempts.
  • Civil penalty – Up to two times the amount of actual damages can be awarded. This extra compensation is designed to further deter manufacturers from selling lemon vehicles in California.
  • Punitive damages – In cases of intentional or gross negligence by the manufacturer, punitive damages may also be awarded. Punitive damages are on top of compensatory and civil penalties.

Recovering these additional fees, costs and penalties through a lemon law claim ensures the buyer is made completely whole. The law provides full compensation and transfers the financial damage back to the manufacturer who is at fault for producing and selling a lemon.

Disclosure Requirements Under the Lemon Law

To protect consumers, California’s lemon law requires proper disclosure by the manufacturer when a vehicle fits the lemon criteria. These rules require the manufacturer to:

  • Label vehicles as lemons in current and future ownership records/reports to inform buyers
  • Obtain acknowledgment and agreement to the designation as a lemon from the consumer
  • Disclose the fact it is a lemon on the certificate of title, in bold letters
  • Notify the California Department of Motor Vehicles of the lemon designation

Consumers have a right to know the full ownership history and lemon designation of a vehicle before purchasing. These rules prevent manufacturers or dealers from glossing over the lemon history of a vehicle and selling it to an unknowing consumer without proper disclosure.

Time Limits for Filing a Lemon Law Claim

Consumers who believe they purchased a lemon need to act promptly to start the legal process rolling under the Lemon Law. Important time limits apply, including:

  • Written notice to the manufacturer – The buyer must provide written notice to the manufacturer of their lemon law rights and request for replacement or refund. This starts a short window for the manufacturer to act before further legal action.
  • Lemon law litigation – If the manufacturer does not comply within 30 days of written notice, the buyer can pursue legal action in court. However, state lemon law claims must be filed within 4 years of the original delivery date to the buyer.
  • Arbitration – Most manufacturer warranties require arbitration to settle disputes. Arbitration demands under warranty provisions must also be filed within 4 years from original delivery.

These statutes of limitation underscore the need for prompt action after purchasing a defective vehicle. Failing to start the lemon law process in the early stages of warranty can forfeit your rights. An attorney can help watch these key deadlines.

Lemon Law Arbitration Process

Most new car warranties contain clauses that require binding arbitration to settle disputes between owners and manufacturers. So arbitration conducted by a neutral third party is often part of the lemon law process versus going directly to court. Here is what buyers can expect with arbitration:

  • Process overview – The buyer makes a demand for arbitration under the warranty provisions. The dispute is heard by professional arbitrators assigned by arbitration firms. This is a legal proceeding, just not in a court room, and the arbitrators have power to make binding rulings.
  • Right to an attorney – Consumers have full right to legal representation by an attorney to present their case in arbitration. In fact, hiring a lemon law attorney skilled in arbitration is highly recommended.
  • Evidence and testimony – Each side (buyer and manufacturer) presents evidence like repair records, expert analysis, technicians’ statements, etc. to argue their case over whether the legal criteria for a lemon are met.
  • Ruling – Unlike a settlement, the arbitrator makes a binding ruling at the conclusion of the case as to whether the faulty vehicle qualifies as a lemon under the law. If ruled a lemon, the manufacturer must comply with remedies set forth in the arbitrator’s order. Awards can exceed $100,000 in value between refund, replacement vehicle, fees and other damages.

Arbitration provides a structured legal process to resolve lemon law cases. Having an attorney well-versed in lemon law arbitration ensures your rights are fully protected during this critical proceeding.

Role of Lemon Law Attorneys

Hiring an experienced lemon law attorney is the most important step after discovering your new vehicle is defective. Lemon laws are complex and the process to obtain relief favors the manufacturers, who use their own legal teams against individual consumers. Tilting the playing field back in your favor requires expertise on your side.

Benefits of working with a qualified lemon law attorney include:

  • Case Evaluation – They can analyze the defects, warranty status, repair history and other factors to determine if your vehicle qualifies under the lemon law.
  • Manage Process – They oversee the entire process from start to finish. This includes notification, arbitration demands, evidence gathering, filings, and ensuring deadlines are met.
  • Prove Lemon Status – They use legal expertise to build the most compelling case possible that your vehicle meets lemon law criteria. This involves identifying key facts, securing expert opinions, formulating legal arguments, and meticulously documenting the case.
  • Negotiation – They negotiate directly with manufacturer legal teams to push for the maximum settlement. Their leverage and experience during settlement talks greatly benefits consumers.
  • Favorable Rulings – In arbitration, they have proven track records of constructing air-tight cases before arbitrators to win favorable rulings for their clients.
  • Maximize Compensation – Every aspect of a lemon law case is handled to maximize the total compensation for the defective vehicle, including refund, replacement value, fees, expenses and civil penalties.

With an attorney guiding your case, the complex lemon law process becomes much simpler. They level the playing field and optimize the outcome for the defective vehicle owner.


Buying a defective vehicle can quickly turn the joy of a new car into a nightmare. But California’s Lemon Law provides powerful consumer protections in these disheartening situations. By understanding your rights under the law, you can take action to obtain a refund or replacement vehicle if you purchase a lemon.

The key is identifying if your vehicle likely qualifies under the lemon law criteria: still under the manufacturer’s original warranty, has defects that substantially impair use/value/safety, and given reasonable repair attempts. If so, promptly move forward with written notice to the manufacturer and, if needed, work with an experienced lemon law attorney to pursue your case through arbitration.

While the process takes time and effort, the payoff of recouping your investment in the vehicle makes it well worth it. Don’t suffer in silence if you’ve purchased a lemon. You have legal rights and recourse. California’s Lemon Law provides some of the best consumer protections in the country against defective vehicles. Educate yourself on the law’s provisions, document the issues, and be ready to take action for a replacement or refund if you receive a lemon off the lot. With strong lemon law backing, you can turn the car buying experience from sour back to sweet.

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