When is a Nonconformity Substantial Enough?

When is a Nonconformity Substantial Enough?

Under California’s Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, more commonly known as “the lemon law,” if a vehicle manufacturer is unable to repair a “nonconformity” with a vehicle after a reasonable number of attempts, the manufacturer has an affirmative obligation to offer to either repurchase or replace the defective vehicle. “Lemon law” lawsuits arise when the manufacturer fails to comply with this obligation.

But what is a nonconformity? Or put another way, “how bad does the defect have to be to get my car bought back?”

The first step in answering that question is to look at the lemon law itself.

Song-Beverly defines “nonconformity” as “a nonconformity which substantially impairs the use, value, or safety of the new motor vehicle to the buyer or lessee.” “Substantial” can mean “of considerable importance” or “serious and significant.”

The legal definition of “nonconformity” has been interpreted as being both objective and subjective. Not only must the unrepaired defect be objectively substantial to a reasonable consumer, but it must subjectively be a substantial impairment to that specific consumer.

In many instances, a defect is both objectively and subjectively “substantial.” For example, no one would argue that repeat engine failure is a “substantial” defect. If a vehicle doesn’t run, no one can use it. It is both objectively substantial to the reasonable consumer and subjectively substantial to anyone that would try to drive that car.

But some other problems may impact some owners more than others. A defective Bluetooth system might not bother the occasional driver who hates talking on the phone while in the car, but at the same time, substantially impair the use of the vehicle for another who spends hours every day in the car (and on the phone) as part of their daily commute. Or a defective rear defroster would impact you more if you lived in the snow than it would if you lived in the desert.

The lemon law also sets forth three categories of substantial impairment, is there substantial impairment to the vehicle (1) use; (2) value; or (3) safety:

  • Use: A vehicle’s “use” is impaired if the nonconformity interferes with the buyers use or enjoyment of the vehicle. Courts have found that defective warning lights that go on when there is no issue, even though not a “safety” defect, could substantially impair the use of the vehicle because the buyer would be forced to take the vehicle each time that the light came on. A persistent oil leak from the engine or oil pan could substantially impair the use of the vehicle, even if it not a safety defect. Having to have an oil pan replaced each time the oil is changed can mean that the vehicle is out of service for days, while the dealership waits for the oil pan RTV sealant to cure. What should be a 30-minute oil change can mean that you are without your vehicle for a week!
  • Value: A vehicle’s “value” is substantially impaired if the unrepairable defect reduces the potential resale price of the vehicle. A substantial “diminution in value” would satisfy this category. Would someone not want to buy the car (or pay less) because of the defect?
  • Safety: And a “safety” defect covers more than just “safety hazards.” Some issues, such as brake failure or stalling are clear safety hazards that substantially impair the vehicle’s safety. But even failing to start can be considered a “safety issue.” In facts, if the vehicle owner is stranded in a remote, unsafe, or inclement location, a failure to start can be lethal.

While many defects would impair the use, value, and safety of the vehicle, under Song-Beverly, only one of the three categories must be satisfied. The lemon law covers more than just safety hazards.

But ultimately, only you can answer, the question, “is my defect substantial?” If you have any questions, give us a call.

September 18, 2019