Friday, December 1, 2006

My experiences with the California Lemon Law....

So, to start this off with, I bought an American-made, $50,000 SUV in 2004. I bought it new, having ordered it through the local dealer. I ordered the top of the line, 4 wheel drive, with DVD, and every bell and whistle you can imagine. I had planned to have this SUV for many, many years.

When I picked it up, I was so excited. It drove really nice, and was everything I had hoped for. I loved that SUV.

I had researched it fully, knowing all of the recall notices, hints and kinks of the options - I knew it inside and out before I had even picked it up! One thing I knew about, the American car company had recently decided to remove the hood insulation in a move to cut costs. Since this SUV was a diesel, and since I planned on having the SUV for many years, I was concerned about this. So, when I took delivery, this was one of the first things I checked. Sure enough, mine had no hood insulation. I brought this up with the dealer - they replied with "Well, surely the company knows best, it must not be necessary...". I also contacted the company, they never did answer my question as to why it was left off, and never came through with any kind of fix or remedy. Strike number 1.

So, I was beginning to get over this piece - not having hood insulation. If the hood paint started to peel in 3 or 4 years due to the heat from the engine, well, then I'd deal with it then. Since I kept the car garaged always, it wasn't exposed to a lot of sun, so I figured I had a reasonable chance that I'd be Ok on this one.

Then, one night, as I was driving home from the gym, something a bit scary happened. I was driving through town about 1/2 mile from my house, and coming down a hill, travelling at approximately 35 mph, in a 35 mph zone. All of a sudden, out of the blue, EVERYTHING shut down. No lights. No power steering. No power brakes. No engine. Nothing. Nada. Imagine what it's like trying to slow down an 8000 pound SUV to a safe stop with no power brakes or steering. Not fun. Once I got it stopped (it's a miracle I didn't kill someone in the process of trying to get it off the road), it actually started right back up again. The next day it went into the dealer. Diagnosis? One of the computer wires touched the engine and shorted the computer. The dealer put in the recommended fix (shouldn't this sort of thing have been a recall?) and I took it home, again. Strike number 2.

A few months later, I had spent a full day at work, and all I wanted to do was get home, have a good dinner, and relax. I went out to the SUV, got in, and fired it up. It started, but it was obvious it wasn't running correctly. Within a minute or so, the entire parking lot was full of white smoke. Putting it in gear would kill the engine. I thought "Maybe it's just the computer, shut it down and start it up again and see what happens". Didn't help, same problem. It was dark, cold, and I was frustrated. A few calls to the dealer and the company later and they sent a flatbed out to pick up the monster. It would be about 2 hours before I would get home that night. The problem this time? It was a faulty EGR valve. Again, this was a known problem at the time, there was a retrofit EGR that supposedly resolved the problem, but again, no recall. Strike number 3.

About this time I'm thinking to myself I can't take this SUV anywhere without worrying about it not making the trip home. That was one of the main reasons I had purchased the car, and a diesel at that, since longevity, durability and safety were key. Anyhow, on to the next problem...

About 9 months after I had purchased the car, I noticed a strong decline in power. At it's worst, I would have to have the accelerator pedal on the floor to keep up with 65mph traffic on flat ground. Obviously, something's seriously wrong. Took it to the dealer, and numerous times the dealer responded with "We can't find anything wrong". After the third time to the dealer for this problem, I suggested that a diesel tech ride with me so I can reproduce the problem. Within 5 minutes of that, I was able to reproduce the problem, and the tech was able to capture some data with his computer. We went back and forth on this problem with the dealer for nearly 3 months before they finally replaced the turbo and resolved the problem. Strike number 4.

Think it can't get any worse? Read on...

So, shortly after I picked up the new SUV, my wife complained of smelling diesel exhaust in the cab. We reported this just about every time the SUV went in for any kind of repair or service. Each time, the response was "We can't find any problems". The dealer replaced the rear door seals, did various other attempts to fix it, but often they would suggest that it was in her mind, or "It's just how diesels are", or a few other choice examples of attempts to shoo us away. While the tech and I were reproducing the problem (Strike number 4, above) the cab filled with exhaust, and he nearly choked. It was then that they admitted there was a problem. Fixing the turbo didn't resolve the problem, however.

At this point I'm pretty frustrated. Not only has my $50,000 SUV been in the shop for more than 3 months of it's first year, I have no idea what health consequences myself and my wife are going to pay for riding in this thing. At that point, I decided to contact an aquaintance of mine, Steve Lehto, who happens to be a Lemon Law attorney in Michigan. Steve's written a book on the Lemon Law and I figured he might have some ideas on how I might proceed.

Steve gave me some good info, but suggested that since I'm in California, I should work with a California Lemon Law expert. He pointed me to Nick Nita at Consumer Legal Services, a legal firm in Southern California who specializes in California Lemon Law. My wife initiated contact with Mr. Nita, and from that point on, things started to get better. Mr. Nita requested all of our paperwork that had anything to do with the SUV in question. He decided to take on the case, and it was really a win-win situation for us, because if he couldn't win the case for us, we didn't pay, and if he did win the case for us, his legal fees would be paid by the auto manufacturer. We decided to go ahead and work with Mr. Nita.

Going through basically a lawsuit is not fun. It requires you to provide documentation about everything you claim, and then some. To make a long story short, we ended up getting a settlement from the manufacturer to buy back our SUV, and they also agreed to pay registration fees for the 2 years that we owned the car. We were happy with that. I couldn't in good conscience sell the car to another unsuspecting person knowing all of the problems it had. I certainly wasn't about to take a $25,000 hit for the value loss that would have been had I disclosed all of the problems the SUV had. So, I felt good that the manufacturer would take the car back and we'd be free to move on with our lives.

We spent many, many hours taking the car back and forth to the dealer, and the dealer had the car for a good portion of it's life with us.

In the end, I can highly recommend Consumer Legal Services and Nick Nita if you're in California and think you might have a Lemon Law case. If you are looking for a good book on Lemon Law, consider Steve Lehto's book The Lemon Law Bible

I hope my experience can help others who have been in a similar situation.

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