When an automobile turns out to be a lemon, the owner can do more than pay endlessly for repairs. He can sue for breach of warranty and, if successful, collect for damages and for attorney fees.
That was the message delivered yesterday to the 200 attorneys who paid $125 to attend the "Lemon Law Litigation Conference," an all-day program intended to teach the benefits of the far-reaching but little-used 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act for lawyers and for consumers. The conference was sponsored by the Center for Auto Safety, a local consumer advocate group.
"Millions of cars are sold every year, and because of the errors that can occur naturally during production there should have been thousands of lawsuits filed by consumers who got lemons," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the center. But only 51 cases have been filed under Magnuson-Moss, he said.
Ditlow believes that more consumers would sue if attorneys were more familiar with the warranty law, more willing to take such cases, and more creative in setting fees for warranty case work. Mark Silber, a lawyer from Metuchen, N.J., told the conference that he routinely will take a case for a $750 retainer fee. The consumer gets back the $750 if Silber wins the case and the legal fees that the court can order the loser to pay under the warranty law.
In one recent case, Giuseppe Ventura, a 49-year-old tailor in Edison, N.J., sued Ford Motor Co. because his 1978 Mercury Marquis Brougham repeatedly stalled. The court awarded Ventura $7,000 in damages and attorney Silber $5,000 in fees.
Silber and Ditlow both said that a consumer who has been sold a lemon -- a car "that won't provide adequate transportation" -- should exhaust all the regualr remedies before going to court.
"Go to the dealer first, then the zone office for the manufacturer and finally write to Detroit," Ditlow said. If none of those people are able to have the car repaired, the consumer should complain to the consumer agencies, including the local government consumer office, the Better Business Bureau and any others.
When all of those efforts have failed, it is time to talk to a lawyer, Ditlow said.
The law entitles a consumer to damages when the manufacturer hasn't honored the warranty. If the consumer wins, he also is entitled to costs and expenses incurred in bringing the suit, such as witness fees and stenographic costs, and to attorney's fees based on actual time expended. The law doesn't guarantee attorney fees, however.
Larry Kanter, a Federal Trade Commission official, told the conference that attorneys have been awarded fees in all of the 17 warranty cases decided under law so far. But after Kanter left the podium, he was approached by a lawyer form Steubenville, Ohio, who had been denied a request for fees.
"He said the judge refused to award any -- which is possible under the law, even though I hadn't heard of any case of that happening before," Kanter said.