What Is A Lemon Car? A Look At The Legal Definition

You may have heard someone use the word lemon to describe a car and wonder, What’s a lemon car? A lemon is a legal term describing a car that has a defect that the manufacturer cannot repair after making several attempts. If you have a lemon car, you may be entitled to compensation, such as a replacement vehicle or a refund. In addition, most lemon laws require the manufacturer to pay your attorney’s fees and other costs if you win the claim.

Each state has different requirements regarding what makes a car a lemon. For example, under the NY lemon law, a car may be a lemon if it is a new vehicle you use for household or similar purposes with a defect that takes more than four attempts for the dealership to address. Other states have additional or different requirements about when the law deems a car to be a lemon. While a majority of states only offer consumer protection for purchasers of a new car, some states also offer protection for used or leased vehicles that meet certain requirements.

In this post, the Robison Lemon Law Group provides general guidelines to assist you in determining whether your car fits the eligibility requirements of a lemon car. We also cover the various types of legal rights you may have under consumer protection laws, such as the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act and the Uniform Commercial Code.

Robison Lemon Law Group LLC represents consumers who purchase or lease a vehicle that is inoperable or requires excessive repairs for the same issue within a short time after they receive it. The firm is committed to helping consumers receive the compensation they are entitled to under the law if they unknowingly purchase a lemon. Our lemon law lawyers provide effective and efficient legal representation and do not charge clients any money to represent them in their lemon law cases. 

What Is a Lemon Car?

A lemon car is a legal term to describe a vehicle that has a serious and irreparable problem or defect. Each state has its own requirements for what defects qualify a car as a lemon. Further, some states include used or leased vehicles in the definition of a lemon, while others do not.

The definition of a lemon car under the law of a majority of states is a vehicle that has the following:

  • A serious or substantial defect that occurs within a certain period after the consumer purchased it,
  • The defect is covered under a warranty, and
  • The defect continues after a reasonable number of repair attempts. 

The number of repair attempts the consumer must make depends on the applicable state law. For example, under the Illinois lemon law, the consumer generally must attempt to repair the vehicle by taking it to the dealership at least four times to address the same or a similar problem. 

Additionally, state laws may reduce the number of repair attempts before someone needs to file a claim if the defect presents a safety hazard. For example, Maryland law states that the consumer need only make one repair attempt for a brake or steering issue that causes the vehicle to fail a state inspection. Further, if the car is inoperable for a certain amount of time because of the defect, the consumer may not need to make additional repair attempts. 

State lemon laws also have restrictions on what kinds of vehicles qualify for protection. For example, Illinois lemon law does not include motorcycles, boats, or altered or modified vehicles. Other states restrict vehicles by their size or whether the consumer uses them for household purposes. For questions about what applies to your specific situation, consider contacting a lemon law lawyer in your state. 

What Is a Lemon Law?

There are federal and state consumer protection laws known as lemon laws that protect consumers who have purchased a new car that qualifies as a lemon. In some states (such as New York and Pennsylvania), a lemon car can be one that a consumer leases. Others encompass used cars as well as new vehicles. 

In general, lemon laws require a manufacturer to either provide the customer with a replacement vehicle or a refund if they cannot repair the lemon after making a certain number of attempts. As discussed above, the defect in question must be substantial. The specific number of repair attempts that must be made to prove this differs from state to state and also depends on the circumstances. 

What Is a Substantial Defect?

To qualify for protection in most states, the car must have a defect that substantially impairs its safety, use, or value. Most states consider faulty brakes or steering to be substantial defects because they make the car unsafe to operate. In contrast, minor problems, such as a stereo knob that falls off or a compartment that won’t stay closed, are not considered substantial defects.

Each state requires the substantial defect to have occurred within either a designated period of time or a certain number of miles. For example, under the Illinois lemon law, the defect must occur within 12 months after you purchase the vehicle or in the first 12,000 miles, whichever occurs first. Other states may have longer or shorter requirements. 

In addition, the problem must not have been caused by abuse, neglect, or unauthorized alterations to the car. Further, if the defect or problem arises because of a car accident, the state lemon law likely does not cover it, regardless of who is at fault for the accident. When pursuing a claim under the lemon law statutes, the consumer (or their attorney) typically bears the burden of showing they did not cause or contribute to the defect or problem. 

What Constitutes a Reasonable Number of Attempted Repairs?

Even a car with a substantial defect is only considered a lemon if the manufacturer or dealership cannot fix the problem after a reasonable number of attempts. It is imperative that you contact the dealer or manufacturer of the car to inform them of the problem and allow them the opportunity to attempt to repair it.

State law varies on what is considered a “reasonable” number of attempted repairs before the law classifies a car as a lemon. Generally, most states require the manufacturer to attempt to repair the car three or four times. But, this amount may be lower if the defect poses a significant safety threat.

For example, the New York Lemon Law presumes that the manufacturer has made a reasonable number of attempts to repair a problem if the following is true:

  • The dealer had the opportunity to repair the same problem during at least four visits.
  • The problem continues to exist, or the car was in the repair shop for a combined total of 30 or more days for one or more problems.

The Pennsylvania Lemon Law and New Jersey Lemon Law establish a presumption that a manufacturer or its dealer cannot repair or correct a defect within a reasonable time if there were at least three attempts to repair the same problem and the defect or nonconformity continues to exist.

However, under the New Jersey Lemon Law, it may only be necessary to make one attempted repair if the defect continues and is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if the consumer were to drive the car.

Under the Pennsylvania Lemon Law, there is also a presumption that a car is a lemon if it was out-of-service for a combined total of 30 or more days for one or more problems. New Jersey Lemon Law has a similar law, except that it only requires the vehicle to be in the repair shop for a cumulative total of 20 days or more to qualify.

In every state, you will need to show that you notified the manufacturer during the required time period under the lemon law of that state. Additionally, you must show that you made the necessary amount of repair attempts (or that the vehicle was in the repair shop for the statutory minimum amount of days).

It is very important to keep careful records of all notices you send to the manufacturer and document all repair attempts made by the dealership or manufacturer. Items you should keep include repair bills, work orders, complaints, and any communications (including emails and phone records) with the manufacturer or dealer handling the repair. You can use this to prove your lemon law claim and show how many repairs were attempted, the problem your car was experiencing, and, if applicable, how long the car was in the shop.

What Remedies Are Available to Consumers if They Purchase a Lemon?

If your vehicle meets the criteria of a lemon car as defined by your state, you may qualify for protection under the lemon law. If that is the case, you may have the right to obtain either a refund or a replacement car from the manufacturer.

A consumer who suspects their vehicle is a lemon car should notify the car dealer immediately and keep detailed records of their receipts and communications with the dealership. Consumers may be eligible for relief under the Lemon Law if the manufacturer refuses to either replace the car or refund them the purchase price.

Before taking any action, consumers should reach out to a lemon law lawyer in their state to ensure their rights are protected and they do not miss the applicable filing deadlines. It is also important for consumers to know that filing a claim with the dealership is not the same thing as filing a lawsuit. If you file a claim with the dealership within the statutory deadline but don’t file a lawsuit until much later, you may not have a legal basis for the lawsuit. It is important to take swift action to protect your rights. 

The method of handling the case differs in each state, but in New York, you have the choice of either participating in an arbitration program or filing a lawsuit against the manufacturer in court. Under the lemon laws of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the courts may award you reasonable attorney fees and other compensation if you are successful.

What Are the Limitations to State Lemon Laws?

State law includes limits on the types of vehicles that qualify for protection. Additionally, states typically require the consumer to show that the defect arose within a certain amount of time or mileage marker after they purchased (or, in some cases, leased) the vehicle. Finally, states differ on whether the law covers used vehicles or just new vehicles. 

Generally, the car must have been used for personal or household purposes, as most lemon laws do not cover commercial vehicles. In some states, the lemon law may also extend consumer protection to boats, motorcycles, recreational vehicles (RVs), and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). 

New York and New Jersey lemon law generally cover used vehicles; however, the defect must arise within 90 days (at most) after the consumer purchases the vehicle. Other states, like Illinois, typically do not cover used vehicles regardless of when the defect arises.

What Others Laws Protect Consumers with Defective Vehicles?

The federal warranty act, also known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, and the Uniform Commercial Code also protect consumers who purchase defective vehicles. The level of protection and what the consumer needs to prove to have a claim depends on the circumstances.

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that allows consumers to file a lawsuit against a manufacturer for breaching a written warranty.  The federal warranty act enables consumers to receive compensation, such as the attorneys fees and other costs associated with bringing the lawsuit, if they win their claim.

The purpose of the Act is to prevent manufacturers from creating grossly unfair warranties and to protect consumers from deceptive warranty practices. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act gives consumers significant rights in dealing with the manufacturer of a lemon car. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act often covers more vehicles than state lemon laws do. The main requirements are that the vehicle is normally used for household or personal purposes and is subject to a written warranty.

The Uniform Commercial Code

The Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) is a comprehensive set of laws governing the sale of goods. All 50 states have adopted some version of the UCC; however, each state has its own variation of the law, and some (like Louisiana) have not adopted certain portions of the UCC.


Under the UCC, the consumer may receive a refund or replacement of a lemon car if the manufacturer breached the warranty. To qualify for protection under the UCC, you must show that the warranty includes certain language and that other facts are present. Unlike the state lemon law, the UCC does not include a definition of a lemon. To make this determination, courts look at the applicable case law and other factors present in the circumstances to decide whether the defect qualifies. Like the Magnuson-Moss Act, many state laws allow the consumer to receive compensation for attorney fees if they successfully bring an action against the manufacturer under the UCC.

Recovering Compensation for a Recalled Vehicle

Federal law requires manufacturers to send a notice by mail to owners of vehicles affected by a safety recall. If a recall has been issued for your car, you need to have the manufacturer or authorized dealer examine the vehicle without delay. If your vehicle is recalled and the dealer is taking an unreasonable amount of time to repair the defect, or if a dealer refuses to repair the issue, you may have a case on your hands.

Contact Robison Lemon Law Group LLC for a Free Case Review Today

Our lemon law attorneys focus exclusively on helping consumers assert and defend their rights under state and federal lemon laws. Having this focus has enabled us to amass a wealth of experience and knowledge in the area of consumer lemon law. Emma Robison has devoted her career to helping individuals in need, beginning as a Social Security Disability and workers’ compensation advocate and transitioning to lemon law before founding the Robison Lemon Law Group, LLC. She brings compassion and unparalleled dedication to her lemon law practice and enjoys giving her clients a voice. 

Contact the Lemon Law attorneys at Robinson Lemon Law Group, LLC, today to schedule a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. We can evaluate your case and recommend the best course of action.

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