The recently published California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two opinion may make defense counsel cringe and give some car owners hope.  As for me, it just makes me feel giddy.

In Martinez v. Kia Motors America, Inc. the Court overruled the lower court’s order granting Kia Motors’ summary judgment motion.  The lower court granted the summary judgment motion because the plaintiff, Martinez, no longer owned the car.  On appeal, the Court rejected the notion that the lemon law requires, as a matter of law, that a consumer must maintain ownership or control of the car for purposes of claiming the benefits of the lemon law, or that the consumer loses the protection of the lemon law once the car is repossessed.  This was a fantastic result for Martinez and other similarly situated consumers.  The horrendous way in which Kia Motors treated Martinez prior to the lawsuit makes it that much more sweet.

The facts of Martinez may unfortunately sound too familiar for many readers.  Martinez purchased a new Kia Sedona in July 2002, which was accompanied by an express warranty for 60 months or 60,000 miles.  Within the first year, Martinez began noticing a burning smell emanating from the vehicle.  She complained about the smell to the dealer on at least four occasions during the first three years.  The dealer did nothing about the problem.  No other mechanical problems were experienced throughout the first three years of ownership.

On July 18, 2005, there were 38,162 miles on the car.  While Martinez was driving the car on that date, the car started shaking and making strange noises; smoke started coming from the engine compartment.  Martinez smelled a strange acidic odor, which she believed to be battery acid.  The lights and windows began malfunctioning.  She pulled to the side of the road and a Good Samaritan, who happened to be a mechanic, helped her.  He concluded that the alternator had overcharged the battery.  Martinez’ son later installed a new battery.  The car would not start.  The car was then towed to Kia of Riverside.

Kia of Riverside denied Martinez warranty service.  The car was then towed to another dealer, Kia of Temecula, for repairs.  A “master technician” spent nearly 10 hours inspecting and working on the car.  The “master technician” blamed Martinez by stating that she had incorrectly tried to jump-start the car.  Warranty coverage was denied.  The technician did not test the alternator during the inspection because the dealership did not have the means to do so – shocker.  Martinez left the car at the dealership so that they could fix it.

Martinez stopped making payments.  The car was repossessed by the lien-holder in February 2006. HERE’ S THE KICKER, FOLKS.  In the meantime, following the repossession, the car was towed to Kia of Glendale, which determined that the car’s alternator had been overcharging and causing damage to electrical components – again, shocker.  Kia of Glendale made the necessary repairs, which were paid by Kia Motors pursuant to the warranty.  Did you catch that?  Kia Motors denied Martinez warranty coverage but gave its own dealership warranty coverage.  I suspect that Kia Motors found a way to fix the car so that they could sell the lemon to some other unsuspecting consumer.  NOTE:  If your car was repossessed and you received a Notice of Intent and owe a deficiency balance, give us a call.

Martinez filed suit against Kia Motors.  In response, Kia Motors took the position that Martinez could not seek a buyback or replacement in her lawsuit because the car had been repossessed and she no longer owned the car.  The trial court agreed and entered judgment in favor of Kia Motors.  Martinez appealed.

On appeal, the Court smacked down Kia Motors’ spurious argument:  “We hold that under the [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][lemon law] a plaintiff does not need to possess or own the vehicle to [seek a buyback or replacement under the lemon law].”

The Court noted that the well-established lemon law is a strongly pro-consumer protection law and that it requires manufactures to have facilities available to perform repairs to cars that are under warranty.  If the manufacturer is unable to repair the car, or otherwise breaches the express warranty, then the car owner is entitled to a buyback or replacement vehicle.  Importantly, the Court noted, nowhere in the lemon law is there a requirement that the car owner must retain the vehicle after the manufacturer fails to comply with its obligations under the lemon law.  After all, this makes sense as the Court noted:

“To read into the statute an unexpressed requirement that the consumer possess or own the vehicle as a condition to obtaining relief would have a chilling effect on the availability of the [lemon law].  If a manufacturer refuses to comply with its obligations under the [lemon law] to repair a defective vehicle, the buyer may have to spend years in litigation pursuing his or her remedies under the [lemon law].  If a buyer who had financed the purchase of the car must retain ownership of the unusable vehicle throughout this time, he or she will need to continue paying for the derelict vehicle, as well any replacement vehicle.  .  . [to require an owner to maintain possession of the car] would encourage a manufacturer who has failed to comply with the [lemon law] to delay or refuse to provide a replacement [car] or [buyback]; any delay increases the likelihood that the buyer will be forced to relinquish the car to a lien holder…”

This opinion is important for a couple of reasons.  The facts of the case illustrate what happens time and time again.  A car owner has a genuine problem with their car and brings it to the dealership for repair.  In response, the manufacturer’s “master technician” conducts a shoddy and incomplete inspection that falls short of the manufacturer’s own inspection protocol.  Not surprisingly either the manufacturer fails to duplicate the problem or the manufacturer performs the wrong repair leaving the owner stuck with a car with ongoing problems. Dealing with a defective car is a huge burden for families, particularly working class families – families are stranded on barren roadways, fathers are late for work, and softball practice is missed.  Most families do not have the luxury of taking the morning off from work in order to deal with a defective car that the manufacturer fails or refuses to repair.

The opinion also illustrates the fact that delay benefits the manufacturer.  It is not unusual for a manufacturer to engage in delay tactics in order to gain an advantage over the car owner.  Manufacturers know that most car owners will not seek an attorney in response to the manufacturer’s inability or refusal to perform a proper repair.  It is not uncommon for a manufacturer’s dealership to attempt to sell the owner a newer replacement car, thus giving the dealership additional opportunities to impose excessive finance charges and unnecessary fees.  The consumer loses in that situation.  Don’t let that happen to you.  You have rights.

If you own or lease a lemon, you should contact an attorney now.  Do not hesitate.  Call now.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]