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Understanding Florida's 'lemon law'

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A consumer recently purchased a new car and already has made several trips to the dealer's service department for repairs. After picking up the car, the same problem occurs or a new one arises. The dealership employees tell the consumer that there is no more that they can do and refuse to give a refund or another car.

Consumers do have options with the quickest and least expensive to file a claim for arbitration under the Florida Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act, also known as the "lemon law." This law affords consumers a refund of monies paid to date for the car (loan, lease or all cash payments) less depreciation or a reasonably equivalent replacement car. The car must have been purchased new in Florida and a claim has to be filed within 24 months after taking delivery.

Here's the process: once the consumer brings the car in for repairs three times for the same problem or has had it in the shop for 30 days (consecutive or nonconsecutive) for a variety of problems, a claim may be made against the manufacturer. The arbitration is a semi-formal hearing (not in a courtroom) in which the consumer presents her case and the auto manufacturer presents its facts. At the end of this hearing, the arbitrator decides who wins. The consumer may have to go through the manufacturer's own certified arbitration program if there is one (usually arranged by the Better Business Bureau). If she loses, then she is entitled to proceed to the state of Florida's arbitration, which is organized through the Florida attorney general's lemon law division. In both, the key to winning is proving that the car has a substantial defect which impairs its safety or use or value.

Although the law is meant to be consumer friendly, it can be complicated especially in proving to an arbitrator(s) that the car has a substantial defect. In addition, calculating the refund to the consumer can be confusing without an understanding of how depreciation and trade-in values work. Despite that, the benefits may outweigh a lengthy and costly trial.

How may a consumer avoid buying a lemon? Investigate the prospective car's repair history in Consumer Reports, auto magazines, Internet chat groups and trusted, knowledgeable mechanics. Many new cars go through several model years before the manufacturer works out all of the kinks.

If the consumer does experience repair problems, it may help to hire a private mechanic to inspect the car and testify at the arbitration hearing if necessary. The consumer should always obtain and read all repair orders and question the findings of the dealership's mechanic. Often, the order will show that the car is performing to manufacturer's specifications despite the private mechanic's observations. Some dealerships are known to deny warranty coverage and bill the consumer for costly repairs when they should have been covered under the warranty.

Lastly, if there is a problem, do not let the manufacturer off the hook by thinking the problem will work itself out or feeling that it's not a big deal. Once the warranty ends it can become a big and very costly deal.