Specifics of the California Lemon Law for new cars?
November 4, 2014 12:34 PM   Subscribe

We have an unresolved issue with our one-year-old Nissan Leaf and are getting to the point of being in the territory of the California Lemon Law. I have a couple of specific questions inside, if you have answers...

We are just over one year in to a three-year Nissan Leaf. We loved the car until September, when an error light came on and we intermittently lost the ability to put it into gear. It was towed to the dealership where it spent 18 days as they escalated and consulted to corporate. Finally some part was replaced and we got it back. It sat in our driveway overnight and the same light came right back on. Took it back, another 9 days went by. They were never able to reproduce or debug the error, and whatever logs they got were not helpful. They finally gave it back to us with no repairs made. Now today, about 2.5 weeks after we got it back, the same light came on again.

I've contacted a Nissan hotline for Leaf owners and am dealing directly with some kind of corporate escalation manager, and she wants the car brought back in for more tests. I could easily see this hitting another 5-7 days in the shop the way this has gone in the past. They seem very disorganized and are not responsive or forthcoming with information unless we call for updates. They do give us a loaner, but they major value of the Leaf for me is the carpool access in the Bay Area, so driving the loaner adds much time to my daily commute. The logistics of getting the car to the dealer, handling the rental, switching car seats, etc is also very challenging for us on working days, so the whole thing is becoming more than just a little bit inconvenient.

The official response has been that the error is not a safety issue and that the car is safe to drive even if the light comes on. I have no way of knowing if that's true - the technology is very new and I have no frame of reference to understand what failures mean (eg I know what "low oil pressure" would mean in my Volvo, no clue about power distribution issues). In any case, I am unable to view the car as reliable to get me to/from work and get my kids to school, and every time I get in I'm waiting for another failure and to be stuck 30 miles from home with no way to get my kids.

As a side note, I'm extraordinarily frustrated with the poor level of service we're getting from the dealer. It seems totally unacceptable to have a one-year-old car with issues like this, especially with such a popular brand and such new technology. I expected a coordinated response that tried hard to keep us happy - that's basically 180 degrees from what we experienced (no call backs when promised, no answers, seemingly a lot of finger pointing to corporate and no real solution or sincere apologies). After the first round of repairs we got a dealer survey (this came in right after we took the car in for the next round) and we filled it out accurately with low scores (things like "did the dealer resolve the issue"?). The result was our "service advisor" calling up and basically chewing my husband out for the feedback, which seems totally ridiculous. I realize that these things, while they will directly inform my decision what to do when this lease is up, are not strictly actionable, so I'm trying pursue this in an unemotional and fact-based way.

I've been researching the California Lemon Law and my husband and I want to push forward with that depending on how this attempt goes and what the corporate person can help us with. I have a couple of specific questions I can't find answers to.

Please note - consulting with an attorney is probably the optimal way to go, but I'd really love any thoughts people might have in the interim. And I guess my first question is:

1. Do I actually need an attorney for this? Google quickly turns up firms that specialize in the Lemon Law. I understand there is an arbitration process, and the BBB (which would handle issues with Nissan) indicates an attorney is not needed. Would I be stupid to go into it without representation? Why are so many law firms specializing in it if I really don't need one?

2. The law says as 30 days of not having use of the vehicle, and other writings call it "30 days in the shop." Do the days the car is dropped off and picked up from the dealer count as part of the 30 days? We're at 27 days if so, but otherwise could be as low as 23. On the day we first took it in the car actually had to be towed in, so it seems that should count as a non-use day since I couldn't even drive it.

3. Is it worth it to pursue a Lemon Law case? The details of the settlement could be very favorable in terms of getting out from under the car, but other written materials indicate that "While the total number of days that a vehicle has been
out of service can be important, arbitrators tend to
focus on those problems that still aren’t fixed. If the
manufacturer has repaired some problems so that the
vehicle conforms to the terms of the warranty, arbitrators
generally will not order the manufacturer to replace or
buy back the vehicle. "
The Lemon Law also seems strongly geared to safety issues, which Nissan claims this is not. But I have no way of knowing that, and I strongly question the car's reliability.

#3 ties in to my paragraph about the poor dealer service. I really want a solution that will help us get to a better place, not something that further entangles us in a long, drawn-out process that might not help that much. Basically, do I have a case that is actionable under the law?
posted by handful of rain to Law & Government (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know a lot about the lemon law, but I had a problem with my Leaf that sounds really similar so I thought I would let you know about my experience. The error I was getting was "Motor power is being limited. Service is required. Please consult your dealer." I could drive the car, just not over ~30 mph because of the limited power.

I would send the car in and they would do some kind of software reset to make the message go away (which would still take a week for whatever ridiculous reason), but then the error would just come back within a week or two. After having it happen a third time within six weeks I had it sent to a different Nissan service center and gave them crap about not having my car for so long, and then they finally replaced part of the battery. The error hasn't come back since then, and it's been a year and a half.

The meat of the lecture I gave them was about the total number of days the car had been at the service center, just so they knew I was counting. I am sure they don't want to deal with a lemon law case either, so if you emphasize this to them it might help escalate your case so you can get the problem fixed for good.

I have really loved the car aside from this terrible experience, so in the end I am glad I was able to keep it rather than having to push for them to take it back. It is awful that people are still having problems like this--not having access to your brand new car for three or four weeks is completely unacceptable!
posted by insoluble uncertainty at 2:27 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not answering the question, but if you're leasing, have you asked the dealership to either break the lease at no cost, or to swap the car out to one that's actually reliable? I'd at least ask (and push) before trying to force them into it with a Lemon Law complaint.
posted by cnc at 2:27 PM on November 4, 2014

Thanks for the responses so far! I don't want to threadsit, but insoluable that is really interesting. Did you involve this corporate escalation process at all?

We are leasing - I messed up typing but we are one year in to a three-year lease. I think we're hoping the dealer might take the step to replace the vehicle/break the lease on their own if we put enough pressure on. The Lemon Law - if it goes out way - would force that along with them repaying various costs we had associated with title, registration, tax, etc. We really love the car - or want to love it - and I very much need the carpool access, so the Lemon Law is a double-edge sword in that what we actually want is a reliable Leaf, not to break our obligation and then go with some other option.
posted by handful of rain at 2:45 PM on November 4, 2014

My friend argued his way out of a Volkswagen last year that just could not be fixed. He did not use a lawyer.

Are you good with customer service issues?

I would write a letter stating that the car has not worked for 27 days, that it is not safe or reliable to drive. I would DEFINITELY document in this letter who/when you were told that it was safe for you to drive in this condition. Absolutely note that the safety of the vehicle can not be judged since no one yet knows what the problem is.

Ask for what you want at the end of the letter. Be specific, but brief.

Follow up with a phone call.

If your car isn't fixed immediately, get a lawyer and get out of the lease.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

For the record, the car has not been available for somewhere between 4% and 8% of your total lease time. That's a sobering number.
posted by plinth at 4:18 PM on November 4, 2014

When I mentioned breaking the lease, it would be under the assumption that you'd immediately lease a different Leaf from the same dealership. I had a dealership do this for me about 15 years ago for different reasons, and it actually wasn't much of a problem. My experience may have been a big outlier though.
posted by cnc at 5:17 PM on November 4, 2014

No, I didn't escalate it to corporate at all. I just talked to someone at the service center over the phone.

You would think they would automatically take the whole repair history into account with every repair, but the second time it went in they just did the same reset that hadn't fixed it the first time. After that I made it clear that I wanted it FIXED fixed or I would be taking action to make them give me a different car. I am also leasing.

You shouldn't have to drive around with a random error light on. I wouldn't trust that they actually know this is safe, and plus it is a brand new car!
posted by insoluble uncertainty at 7:03 PM on November 4, 2014

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