New report reveals most commonly sued car manufacturers under California lemon law

Media Contacts

Taran Volckhausen

Former Communications Associate, The Public Interest Network

LOS ANGELES –  CALPIRG Education Fund, the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) Foundation and Frontier Group released a report on Tuesday that reveals the car companies that are sued the most and least often under California’s auto lemon law, compared to their market share, over selling seriously defective cars in the Golden State. 

“Car buyers, who are paying record high prices at car dealerships, should be able to expect that the vehicle they’re taking home is completely safe and functional. If the car doesn’t work, the manufacturer must take responsibility,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of CALPIRG Education Fund. “We hope our report helps educate consumers on how different car companies compare when it comes to preventing and addressing lemon cars.”

The report reviews 34,397 lemon lawsuits in California state courts from 2018 to 2021. The key findings from the report are:

  • Auto manufacturers vary widely in how often their customers take them to court in California for selling seriously defective cars. General Motors was sued the most often relative to their share of the state’s new vehicle market while Toyota was sued the least.
  • Toyota was taken to court under the lemon law only once for every 2,029 cars the automaker sold in the state. On the other hand, General Motors had a lemon lawsuit filed for every 78 cars it sold in California. Consumers who purchased GM vehicles were approximately 26 times more likely to file a lemon lawsuit than consumers who purchased Toyotas.
  • Among the more than 7 million new vehicles registered in California from 2018 through 2021, only 34,397 – less than one-half of one percent – resulted in a lawsuit filed in state courts.

“Instead of attacking California’s auto lemon law, auto manufacturers like GM, Jaguar, Fiat Chrysler, Nissan, Ford, and Kia should concentrate on improving their vehicle quality and customer service,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of the CARS Foundation.  Shahan is known for initiating and battling for years to enact what became known as California’s auto lemon law, working closely with Assemblymember Sally Tanner for passage.

California’s lemon law is one of the most comprehensive. Under legislation spearheaded by Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), California’s lemon law was expanded to provide protections for active duty military service members, regardless where they purchased their vehicles, and small business owners and individual entrepreneurs who own up to five vehicles. Plus enhanced protections against vehicles with life-threatening safety defects and a prohibition on confidentiality in lemon law settlements, leaving lemon owners free to tell the truth about their experiences.

“No consumer wants to go to court over a defective car,” said Tony Dutzik, senior policy analyst with the Frontier Group. “Some automakers may find themselves in court more often because they make lower quality cars, or do a worse job of addressing problems to consumers’ satisfaction. Others may offer longer warranties that extend consumers’ rights to sue under the Lemon Law. The data in this report is one more piece of information consumers can use in making a wise choice where to shop for a new car.”

There are currently lemon laws in all 50 states, modeled after California’s which is widely recognized as one of the strongest. California’s auto lemon law requires auto manufacturers to provide owners of new and used cars with refunds or replacement vehicles when the manufacturers fail to fix major problems that  are covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

“Not only did General Motors sell me a very unsafe, defective lemon car, but then they refused to abide by California’s auto lemon law, dragging their feet every step of the way. After my horrible experience with a GM lemon, I will never buy another GM vehicle again,” said Peter Snider, of Monterey, California. “But for asserting my rights under California’s lemon law, I would have had to trade in that lemon at a substantial loss.”

Snider had to file a lawsuit under California’s lemon law to get GM to buy back his 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV, which had numerous defects, including: spontaneously stalling (even though the battery was charged at half); lurching out of control; failing to start or to shut off; a faulty battery that could catch on fire (resulting in a safety recall with no fix for months); a backup camera that malfunctioned; failures of the climate control system; and other major electrical problems. 

California’s lemon law does not apply to minor problems. Consumers who pursued auto lemon litigation reviewed in the report complained that they experienced a wide range of defects, including brake, steering, engine, transmission and electrical failures.

“It’s been 40 years since California passed its lemon law, but even today too many consumers are still unaware of their rights. 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.”