Under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, known as California’s Lemon Law, a consumer does not have to keep a defective vehicle to pursue their rights.
In Martinez v. Kia Motors America, Inc., (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 187, the Court of Appeal definitively ruled that current vehicle ownership is not a requirement for relief under the California Lemon Law: “As framed by the parties, this appeal is limited to the question of whether a plaintiff must possess or own the vehicle at issue in order to obtain replacement or restitution pursuant to the [California Lemon Law]. We hold that under the applicable statutes a plaintiff does not need to possess or own the vehicle to avail himself or herself of the [California Lemon Law’s] remedies. To judicially impose such a requirement into the [California Lemon Law] is contrary to the purpose of the [California Lemon Law] and runs afoul of principles relating to statutory construction.” (Id. at 192.)
The court’s analysis accurately framed the issue within the context of the consumer protection statute’s purpose. (See Kwan v. Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc., (1994) 23 Cal. App. 4th 174: “[T]he [California Lemon Law] is manifestly a remedial measure, intended for the protection of the consumer; it should be given a construction calculated to bring its benefits into action.”)
If the Martinez Court’s holding was not clear enough, it went on to clarify its rationale: “In line with the legislative intent and purpose, there is simply no requirement that a California consumer be able to tender the alleged defective car for purposes of availing themselves of the remedies provided by the [California Lemon Law]. A simple reading of the [California Lemon Law], in conjunction with the provisions of other states’ statutes, clearly demonstrates that in California, unlike other states, a consumer need not own or possess the nonconforming vehicle for purposes of maintaining an action and receiving the benefits of the [California Lemon Law].” (Id. at 197.)
Despite the controlling law on this issue, auto manufacturers and distributors regularly use the prior sale or trade in of a vehicle as a pretext to deny valid buyback requests. Denials based on a consumer no longer owning a vehicle are not only invalid, but also support civil penalties by proving a willful failure to comply with the California Lemon Law.
Automakers also often ignore the holding of Martinez even when buybacks are offered, by deducting hefty offsets for trade-in or sale values previously received if a consumer got rid of their lemon before seeking repurchase. Such trade-in offsets are also impermissible under the California Lemon Law, but an all too common way automakers improperly to attempt to recoup some of their losses. (See Jiagbogu v. Mercedes–Benz USA (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 1235, 1241.)
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