California marks 40th anniversary of landmark auto ‘Lemon Law’

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On July 7, 1982 – 40 years ago on Thursday –  former Gov. Jerry Brown signed California’s landmark auto “lemon law.” Over the following decades, California’s lemon law would become a model for similar laws enacted in all the states. The groundbreaking law required auto manufacturers to provide refunds or replacements to owners of faulty vehicles under warranty when the company failed to make timely repairs.

When Gov. Brown signed the legislation into law, he hosted a ceremony at the Capitol, where he poured lemon-aid and toasted the author, Assemblymember Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) and supporters, including Rosemary Shahan, President of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS). Shahan started pushing for the law three years earlier while picketing at a car dealership in Lemon Grove that had held her car for repairs for over nine months. 

“California has the country’s sweetest recipe for auto lemon-aid,” says Rosemary Shahan, President of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS). “California’s lemon law is known for being one of the strongest in the country, and continues to be a model for the rest of the nation. We continue to fight hard to keep it that way.”

Since its enactment, consumers, small business owners and members of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in California, have obtained refunds or replacement vehicles for seriously faulty “lemon” cars, pickups, motorhomes, and SUVs. In addition, millions more have benefited from the law, which plays a major role in incentivizing auto manufacturers to make the necessary investments in designing, producing and repairing their vehicles – rather than face private litigation.

To raise awareness of the ongoing importance of California’s lemon law, CALPIRG Education Fund, the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety Foundation and Frontier Group released a report in May, 2022. By researching California state electronic court filings, the report provided an unprecedented view into how likely California consumers are to wind up in court after purchasing a car, SUV or light truck from different auto manufacturers. The report found that manufacturers vary widely in how often they are taken to court in California for defective cars — with General Motors the most often sued relative to their share of the car market while Toyota was the least.

“It’s been 40 years since California passed its lemon law, but the number of recalled and defective cars on the road show it’s just as important today,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of CALPIRG. “When you purchase a car you should be able to expect that the vehicle you’re taking home is completely safe and functional. If the car doesn’t work, the manufacturer must take responsibility, and if they don’t the lemon law provides an important recourse.  We hope our report helps educate consumers about their rights under the lemon law and how different car companies compare when it comes to preventing and addressing lemon cars.”

The report also found that the number of Lemon Law cases in 2021 amounted to a fraction of 1 percent of the more than 6 million vehicles in the state with serious safety defects subject to a federally mandated safety recall.

“Auto manufacturers complain about “excessive litigation” in California over lemon autos, but very few problems with defective vehicles actually end up in court,” said Shahan. “In some cases, automakers and dealers resolve issues before being taken to court, while in others consumers give up and sell their defective vehicles back to dealerships at a substantial loss.” 

“40 years later, too many consumers are still unaware of their rights under the lemon law.  Purchasing a car has always been a major investment, but with the recent surge in prices, it’s become even more costly for families and individuals,” said Engstrom. “It’s more important than ever that consumers know they have protection after buying a lemon.” 

Auto manufacturers have repeatedly targeted California’s lemon law and attempted to weaken it, but so far, CARS and allies, including CALPIRG, have succeeded in preserving the law.