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Lemon Law and Used Cars in Pennsylvania

What is a lemon?

Although the exact origin of the term is not known, a lemon refers to a motor vehicle with substantial defects that significantly impair its safety, value, or use. For legal purposes, vehicles must meet a certain list of criteria to be covered by Lemon Law in Pennsylvania.

New Vehicles

Under Pennsylvania law, for a vehicle to be considered a lemon, it must be:

  • New
  • Purchased or leased
  • Registered in Pennsylvania
  • Used for personal, family, or household purposes
  • Substantially defective

Vehicles used for commercial purposes, motorcycles, motor homes, and off-road vehicles are not covered under the Pennsylvania Automobile Lemon Law. The legislature is and has been considering expanding the definition to include motorbikes. If you run into a problem with one of those types of vehicles, there may be other warranty and consumer protections available.

How long does Lemon Law apply?

Pennsylvania’s Lemon Law is in effect for the first 12 months that you own a vehicle, or the first 12,000 miles—whichever comes first. During this time period, if your new vehicle has a substantial problem, the dealer or manufacturer can attempt to fix it in a reasonable amount of time (usually around 3 attempts), at no cost to you. If they are unable to repair it, you may be able to request a replacement vehicle or a refund of the purchase price (minus a corrective allowance for the time you used the vehicle).

If the vehicle’s problems are a result of you modifying or altering the vehicle, or your abuse or neglect of maintenance, it will not be covered by Lemon Law.

Used Vehicles

If you’ve purchased a used car in Pennsylvania from either a private seller or a used car lot, what options do you have if the car turns out to be a lemon? Used car dealers have a bad name—almost as bad a name as lawyers! Unfortunately, in many cases, the reputation on the part of the used car dealers is earned. Some will put out cars in their lot knowing that the cars have substantial issues. Others buy cars in bad condition and sell them “as is,” leaving the buyer holding the bag. What remedies do you have if you have bought a car and it turns out not to be in good shape?

Was fraud committed?

First, it matters where you bought the car. If you bought the car from a private dealer and they explicitly said it was sold “as is,” you may be out of luck. You can still sue if you can show that they made a “materially false statement of fact.” In other words, selling a car “as is” does not mean the seller is permitted to lie about the car’s condition. If they told you the brakes are fine and within days you realize they are not in good shape and that anyone should have known that, then this was a lie. This essentially amounts to fraud, and there are a number of ways that you can pursue claims in this case. However, if the seller simply sold you a car that was not in good shape, this in of itself probably doesn’t give rise to a lawsuit.

Courts consider a number of factors in determining whether someone has committed fraud, including:

  • whether the problem was objectively obvious to any observer
  • whether the buyer and seller had specific abilities in the industry or specialized knowledge, and
  • whether the purchase price indicated a lower quality car.

For example, if someone sells you a relatively new car at a new car price, you have more reason to expect that the car is going to be in good shape. If someone sells you a very old car, it’s harder to complain when it turns out that there are significant problems with it.

Did the dealer violate the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law?

The second situation is where you buy a car from a dealer, whether a used car dealership or a dealership that just happens to have a few used cars on the lot. In either of these cases, you have a stronger claim that a sale of the car violates the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL), found at 73 P.S. § 201. An unfair trade practices claim requires you to demonstrate that the seller did something knowing that it was wrong. This means that they advertised the car falsely, lied to you about the condition of the car, offered a warranty they refuse to honor, or have intentionally tried to develop “plausible deniability” about the quality of their vehicles. In any of these cases, you may be able to sue under the UTPCPL. Suing under the UTPCPL gives you the option to recover up to triple of your actual damages plus your attorney’s fees.

How long has it been since you bought the car?

A major factor in all lemon claims, though, is the amount of time that has passed. Within days or even weeks of the sale, problems with the car that pop up may give you a remedy. It’s important to move on your claim quickly. When months pass, courts are much less likely to award damages or to say that the car is not what it was promised to be. This is because Pennsylvania law does not generally imply a warranty on vehicles. Even if the problem was already developing before you bought the car, the fact that it did not come to head until well after you owned it generally means that it’s going to be your problem. This is not a hard and fast rule, and every situation is unique.

In most cases, we advise clients to try and settle with the business involved and come to an amount of money that will at least defray the cost of fixing the car. This doesn’t mean that you will be “made whole.” Rather in most cases, a compromise is in everyone’s best interest. Our attorneys can help you to navigate this question and then can help you file a lawsuit in either small claims court or in the Court of Common Pleas as necessary. If you have questions about a used car deal, call us today and set up a consultation with one of our attorneys.