California Lemon Law (In a Nutshell)

Part of my day-to-day, as an attorney, involves helping California consumers with defective vehicles. Specifically, I help them get relief under California’s lemon law. 

As a Lemon Law attorney, I often get asked questions about California’s Lemon Law by frustrated consumers. Thankfully, California’s lemon law is one of the strongest lemon laws in the country! 

In this blog post, I break down California Lemon law:

NOTE: The following information is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you are interested in pursuing lemon law, you should contact a licensed attorney in your State.

What is California’s Lemon Law?

The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, otherwise known as the “lemon law,” is a powerful consumer protection statute allocating the rights and consumers and duties of manufacturers.  

The statute can be found in California Civil Code Section 1790-1795.8.  California’s lemon law requires manufacturers of vehicles sold or leased within the State to repair their vehicles to conform to the written warranty within a reasonable number of repair attempts.  

If the manufacturer fails to do so, they must either replace the vehicle or repurchase the vehicle at the buyer’s choice. (See Cal. Civ. Code § 1793.2(d)(2)):

 “If the manufacturer or its representative in this state is unable to service or repair a new motor vehicle, as that term is defined in paragraph (2) of subdivision (e) of Section 1793.22, to conform to the applicable express warranties after a reasonable number of attempts, the manufacturer shall either promptly replace the new motor vehicle in accordance with subparagraph (A) or promptly make restitution to the buyer in accordance with subparagraph (B). However, the buyer shall be free to elect restitution in lieu of replacement, and in no event shall the buyer be required by the manufacturer to accept a replacement vehicle. “(Cal. Civ. Code § 1793.2(d)(2))

What Does California’s Lemon Law Cover?

Generally speaking, California’s lemon law applies to consumer goods and new motor vehicles sold at retail. However, this blog post will focus on the lemon law’s application to vehicles. 

What Types of Vehicles Qualify Under the Lemon Law?

The lemon law applies to purchased/leased cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles, and even the chassis and cab portions of motorhomes, that was purchased for personal or family use.   

The lemon law also applies to new motor vehicles purchased for business use, when the business owns no more than five vehicles and the gross vehicle weight is less than 10,000 pounds. (See Cal. Civ. Code § 1793.22(e)(2).)

How Do I Qualify for the Lemon Law? 

The California lemon law will apply when a consumer: 

  1. Purchases or leases a new car in California at retail (private sales do not count) for personal family/household use (or purchased for business use and the business owns no more than five vehicles and the gross weight of the vehicle is less than 10,000 pounds); 
  2. The vehicle came with a warranty;
  3. The vehicle has a defect covered by the warranty that substantially impairs the use, value, and/or safety of the vehicle to a reasonable buyer;
  4. The consumer brought the vehicle to an authorized repair facility (local dealership) for repair of the defect; and
  5. The manufacturer failed to repair the vehicle to match the warranty after a reasonable number of repair attempts. (See. Cal. Civ. Code § 1793.2(d)(2))

Does The Lemon Law Only Apply to the First 18 Months or 18,000 Miles of the Vehicle’s Life?

No.  California’s lemon law applies during the entire warranty period.  

There is a rebuttable presumption in California lemon law that requires the defect to have occurred during the first 18 months/18,000 miles of ownership. During that time-period, it is presumed that a vehicle was not fixed within a reasonable number of repair attempts if: 

  1. The same defect results in a condition that is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if the vehicle is driven and the defect has been subject to repair two or more times by the manufacturer or its agents, and the buyer or lessee has at least once directly notified the manufacturer of the need for the repair of the nonconformity. (See Cal. Civ. Code Section 1793.22(b)(1)). 
  2. The same nonconformity has been subject to repair four or more times by the manufacturer or its agents and the buyer has at least once directly notified the manufacturer of the need for the repair of the nonconformity. (See Cal. Civ. Code Section 1793.22(b)(2)). 
  3.  The vehicle is out of service by reason of repair of nonconformities by the manufacturer or its agents for a cumulative total of more than 30 calendar days since delivery of the vehicle to the buyer. (See Cal. Civ. Code Section 1793.22(b)(3)). 

This is often called the “lemon law presumption.” 

Often, manufacturers highlight the lemon law presumption in their warranty guides which can make it look like your case is not actionable if it falls outside the 18 month/18,000 limit.  That is not correct.  The lemon law applies during the entire warranty period.

How Many Repair Attempts are “Reasonable?”

The law requires, at a minimum, the manufacturer must be given at least two opportunities to fix the vehicle:

“The statute does not require the manufacturer to make restitution or replace a vehicle if it has had only one opportunity to repair that vehicle.”

Silvio v. Ford Motor Co. (2003) 109 Cal.App.4th 1205, 1208 [135 Cal.Rptr.2d 846].

That said, the number of repair attempts needed to qualify depends on the facts of the case. In general, if you’ve taken your vehicle in 3 or more times for the same concern you may qualify for a repurchase or replacement under California lemon law. 

What is a “Repair Attempt” Under California Lemon Law?

Each time a vehicle is presented for repair of the defect counts as a repair attempt even if the facility did not do any work:

“[T]he only affirmative step the Act imposes on consumers is to ‘permit[] the manufacturer a reasonable opportunity to repair the vehicle.’ Whether or not the manufacturer’s agents choose to take advantage of the opportunity, or are unable despite that opportunity to isolate and make an effort to repair the problem, are matters for which the consumer is not responsible.”

Oregon v. American Isuzu Motors, Inc. (2001) 90 Cal.App.4th 1094, 1103-04

What is “Substantial Impairment”?

California’s lemon law requires that the defect substantially impair the use, value, or safety to a reasonable buyer.  The substantial impairment test is an OBJECTIVE test. In other words, the defect must be substantial to the average person. So, just because a defect is substantial to you is not determinative; the defect must be substantial to the average person

“Whether the impairment is substantial is determined by an objective test, based on what a reasonable person would understand to be a defect. This test is applied, however, within the specific circumstances of the buyer.”

Lundy v. FordMotor Co. (2001) 87 Cal.App.4th 472, 478 [104 Cal.Rptr.2d 545], internal
citations omitted

What Remedies are available under the Lemon Law ?

Option One: “Buy-Back”

A manufacturer must promptly replace or repurchase a vehicle that is deemed to be a lemon.  Generally speaking, a “repurchase” is simply a refund; the manufacturer will return your down payment, all monthly payments, and pays off your loan in exchange for title of the vehicle.   

The manufacturer will also pay your incidental expenses (e.g., rental car expenses) and pay your attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses for you.

Option Two: Replacement vehicle

The second option is a replacement vehicle.  The manufacturer will simply exchange the defective one for another.  All of the terms in your original purchase/lease agreement remain the same (including your monthly payment). 

This option is more difficult than it seems, as manufacturers will try to find a vehicle that is identical to your vehicle (i.e., similar features, mileages, etc) and they may have a hard time finding one in their inventory.

Sometimes, this can work to the consumer’s benefit because the manufacturer will give you the vehicle a model year up from your vehicle (but not always). If the manufacturer has to build you a vehicle, it could take in excess of six months.

Getting a replacement vehicle is also difficult because you need to have your vehicle lender agree to the swap. If the lender doesn’t agree, you can’t get a replacement.

Option three: “Cash-and-Keep”

The third option is called a “cash-and-keep.”  Essentially, the manufacturer will pay you a sum of money to compensate you for your troubles.  In this type of settlement, you keep the car and remain responsible for all the terms under your original lease/purchase agreement.

Understanding the Use Reduction

A replacement/repurchase option under California lemon law, are subject to a “use deduction” or “mileage offset.” The auto manufacturer is entitled to deduct the “good use” you had from of the vehicle. This “use reduction” is calculated by dividing the mileage of your first repair visit (minus the miles on the vehicle at purchase) by 120,000 and multiplying by a purchase cost.

So for example, let’s say you bought a vehicle for $40,000 that had 20 miles on it at the time of purchase. And let’s further assume that the car you purchased had significant transmission issues and you took the vehicle to the dealership for repairs for the first time at 3,000 miles. In that scenario, the mileage offset would be $992.67 (or 3,000 – 22/120,000 x $40,000)

I Bought My Car Used, Does the Lemon Law Still Apply?

The answer to this question is….it depends. Historically, California’s “refund/replace” provision applied to new and used vehicles. However, a recent appellate court decision (Rodriguez v. FCA US LLC), changed that. 

In Rodriguez, the appellate court held that the refund/replace provision of California’s lemon law did not apply to used vehicles. However, this decision has been widely criticized, and has been appealed to the California Supreme Court. As such, it is best to speak to a California-licensed attorney if you have a used vehicle.

Does the Rodriguez Decision Apply to Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles?

The Rodriguez court distinguished used vehicles sold with the balance of the original manufacturer’s warranty from CPO vehicles. So if you purchase a vehicle with a CPO warranty, you may still qualify for a refund/replacement.

Are there any other remedies for used cars?

Yes. The Rodriguez decision only held that used car owners could not invoke the refund/replacement provision of the California lemon law. There are still other remedies that are available to used car owners so it is very important that you speak to a California lemon law attorney to learn more.

What should I do if I think I have a lemon vehicle?

Ask for a Buyback/Replacement Vehicle

You can ask the manufacturer for a buyback/replacement. Many of them have a customer service center that will review your claim and make a decision. 

However, often, the manufacturer will either deny your claim or offer you a nominal amount to resolve the matter. When you ask the manufacturer for a buyback/replacement, they are free to interpret the law any way they see fit–which does not always benefit you. 


Many manufacturers have a dispute resolution program (in fact manufacturers are often required to tell you about the program in their owner’s manual/warranty guides). For example, many manufacturers use the BBB Auto Line as their dispute resolution program. 

When you file a claim with the BBB Auto Line, the case proceeds to arbitration (either in-person, telephone, or written submission). Once the evidence is submitted to the arbitrator, they have 40 days to make a decision. 

You can either accept or reject the decision. If you accept the decision, the decision becomes binding once the manufacturer receives notice that you have accepted the decision.  Then, the manufacturer has 30 days to comply with the decision. If they fail to do so, you can sue them to enforce your rights. 

The drawback to the arbitration route is that it could work against you if the decision is not in your favor (as the manufacturer will likely bring that up if you file a lawsuit later). Also, manufacturers rarely comply with the decision within the 30-day time frame, which means you can waste a lot of time and still get the same result. 

File A Lawsuit

Let us be clear: lemon lawsuits can sometimes be quite challenging.  You should contact a qualified lemon law lawyer to obtain the maximum result for your claim. A qualified lemon law attorney can help you navigate the challenging world of litigation and help you bring your case to a speedy conclusion. 

Most lemon law firms (if not all) offer a free consultation to see if you have a case. If you are interested in having me review your case for free, click here. 

Why should I hire a lemon lawyer?

Lemon laws cases can be lengthy and ambiguous and many factors have to be aligned in order to obtain an effective result. An experienced lawyer will be aware of these factors, can speak to the manufacturer on your behalf, represent you in Court, and help you navigate the world of litigation with ease.

How a California Lemon Lawyer Can Help You in the Process

There are many ways you can win versus opponents without knowing their rules, but you have a tough opponent. 

The California lemon legislation however has many holes you don’t know about but savvy manufacturers are well acquainted and experienced California lemon law attorneys know them.

According to the Lemon Law Index, very few lemon law cases end up in litigation. Here are some impressive statistics:

Source: Frontier Group's Lemon Law Index

Who Pays the attorney fees and costs under the California lemon law?

Under California lemon law, the manufacturer must pay your attorneys’ fees and costs. (See Cal. Civ. Code § 1794 (d). In other words, your lawyer won’t receive compensation unless there is a recovery. 

How long does it take to settle a lemon law case in California?

You may notice a trend here, but the answer is…it depends. Some auto manufactures will settle with consumer based on a demand letter alone, others may settle after an official lawsuit is filed, and others will want you to take them to trial. Speaking to a California lemon law attorney can help you determine the likelihood of when a case will settle. 

Generally speaking, most cases settle long before trial. 


Next to a home, a car is often one of the most significant expenses that a person make in their lifetime. It can be a huge pain when you invest money into reliable transportation only to end up with a defective vehicle that you end up having to take to the dealership time and time again for repairs.

Thankfully, California has one of the best lemon law provisions in the country. Since its inception in 1982, the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (aka the Lemon Law) has been a standout model legislation for decades. 

If you need help with a lemon vehicle purchased in California, feel free to contact me here