Lemon Law litigation begins when the plaintiff (the person who owns the lemon) files a complaint against the auto manufacturer with the court and sends a copy of the complaint (by service of a summons) to the defendant (the manufacturer and, frequently, the dealer). The complaint explains the various defects in the vehicle so that the lawsuit can be considered a Lemon Law case or a breach of warranty case, as well as why the defendant should be found legally responsible for the defects.
The defendant (the manufacturer and/or the dealer) is given a specific amount of time to file with the court an answer to the Lemon Law complaint. The answer explains the defendant’s side of the Lemon Law dispute. Sometimes, the plaintiff responds to the defendant’s answer by filing a reply. In some instances, instead of an answer or reply, the manufacturer or dealer may request that the consumer clarify issues or correct mistakes in the stated facts or legal theories. This may lead to amended complaints or amended answers. Once both the lemon owner and the manufacturer have settled on a complaint, answer, and reply, the case is said to be "at issue," which means that the issues for resolution of the Lemon Law case are now clearly defined.
The time it takes to resolve a Lemon Law case depends on the issues, the amount of discovery that needs to take place, and court scheduling and availability. The attorneys, guided by the rules of court, usually arrange the timing of discovery (the process of each side gathering documents and, sometimes, witness statements). Trial dates for a Lemon Law case are set by the court. Timing and scheduling differ between state and federal courts, so generally, the timing depends on where the consumer resides.
Thorough case preparation is critical to any kind of successful consumer litigation. Research of warranty and Lemon Law, review of relevant repair orders and other technical documentation, and witness interviews help both sides determine the merits of the consumer Lemon Law claim. The extent to which these and other steps are needed is determined by the complexity and repairs done to the vehicle and the legal issues of the case.
Discovery is the way each side gathers relevant information from the other or from the auto manufacturer. Discovery is the longest part of a lemon car case: it begins soon after a lawsuit is filed and often does not stop until shortly before trial. During discovery, each side asks for information about the facts and issues of the case. Information is gathered formally through written questions (known as interrogatories), requests for documents, and requests for admission (which ask each side to admit or deny statements of fact).
Discovery includes questioning the dealer personnel, representatives of the manufacturer and/or any expert the manufacturer may have hired. Often, a claim or defense requires support from expert witnesses to explain technical information or validate an argument. One or more experts might be needed to testify about the connection between the manufacturer’s and the dealer’s conduct, the defects in the vehicle, and the loss suffered by the plaintiff or the existence and amount of the plaintiff’s damages. Expert witnesses work closely with representatives and attorneys to prepare the case. The plaintiff’s attorneys may retain and ASE Certified Master Mechanic to inspect the lemon vehicle and write a report.
Both the court and the manufacturer will focus exclusively on repair records in order to determine the outcome of your case. Therefore, throughout this process, it is extremely important that you continue to bring your vehicle back to the manufacturer’s authorized dealer to be serviced for all problems. If you do not continue to bring your vehicle back to the manufacturer’s authorized dealers, it may hurt your case.
The use of depositions, where witnesses are questioned under oath and in front of a court reporter by attorneys for both sides, is another key method of obtaining information in a lemon lawsuit. Depositions sometimes may be used at trial to show inconsistencies in a witness’ story or to question the witness’ credibility. Sometimes, depositions are used in place of a witness who is not able to attend the trial in person.
You must maintain possession of your lemon while we represent you and while your lawsuit is pending. If you sell, trade, dispose of, or lose possession of your vehicle, or allow it to be repossessed while your case is pending or during our representation, you will lose your right to receive a refund, a replacement vehicle, and/or money for damages under warranty law and Lemon Law. No car means no recovery.
Before trial, each side may use motions to ask the court to rule or act. Motions usually pertain to law or facts in the case, but sometimes they seek clarification or resolution of procedural disputes between or among the sides. Some motions, such as the motion for summary judgment, which asks the court to dismiss part or all of a plaintiff’s case or a defendant’s defense, dispose of issues without trial. As a rule, Lemon Law cases are not frequently resolved on a summary judgment motion, because their resolution involves too many factual issues. Other motions might ask the court to order one side or the other to produce documents or to exclude evidence from trial.
At trial, the consumer presents evidence to prove that his or her vehicle indeed qualifies as a ‘lemon’ under state law, or that the manufacturer breached its warranty obligations to the consumer. The manufacturer tries to prove the opposite – that the car is not a lemon and that the manufacturer and dealer complied with warranty obligations. The claims or defenses will be presented to a jury and/or judge. Immediately before trial, each side provides the judge with a document, called a brief, which outlines the arguments and evidence to be used at trial of a Lemon Law case. In a jury trial, both attorneys for both sides question potential jurors during a selection process called voir dire. Once the jury has been selected, each side presents its outline of the case in an opening statement.
Evidence is then presented. Each side may call witnesses or introduce documents and exhibits in support of its arguments. The plaintiff (the consumer) presents evidence first, then the defendant. The consumer’s evidence normally consists of repair orders for the lemon vehicle in question. Sometimes, the plaintiff is allowed to present additional evidence, called rebuttal evidence, after the defendant has finished presenting its case.
Once all the evidence has been presented, each side gives its closing arguments. After closing arguments, the court instructs the jury on the law to be applied to the evidence. The jury then deliberates and reaches a decision or verdict.
Either side may challenge a jury’s verdict. Errors of law committed by the trial court or a jury’s disregard of law or evidence are common reasons for challenging a jury’s verdict. A motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict asks the court to disregard the jury’s verdict and enter a different decision. A motion for a new trial asks the court to set aside the jury’s verdict and order a new trial of the case.
The side that wins at trial files a motion asking the court to order the losing side to pay the winner’s costs to prosecute or defend the case. Recoverable costs are defined by rule, law, or private agreement, and generally do not include attorney fees. Recoverable costs rarely cover all out-of-pocket costs that the winning side incurs during the course of a lawsuit.
Following trial, the side that is dissatisfied with the result may seek an appeal. During an appeal, they ask another court to review the trial court proceeding. Both sides present their arguments in briefs, which are submitted to the appellate court along with the record of evidence from the trial court. An appeal can extend the litigation process by a year or more.
The appellate court usually reviews a case for legal error only. Except under unusual circumstances, the appellate court will not review factual evidence or disturb a jury’s findings of fact. The appellate court announces its decision in a document called an opinion. The appellate court will affirm the verdict if it finds no error. If an error is found, however, the appellate court may reverse the verdict or order the trial court to conduct a new trial.
It is generally wise at the outset of any litigation proceeding to review the potential and prudence of an out-of-court settlement. Indeed, most Lemon Law cases settle before reaching the trial stage. Settlement can be discussed by either side at any time during litigation and is often a cost-effective alternative to trial. Usually the court does not require the parties to discuss or attempt settlement, but most courts have procedures so that one or both sides can request the court’s assistance in settlement.
Arbitration and Mediation
Arbitration is an adversarial proceeding in which both sides select a neutral third party, called an arbitrator, to resolve their dispute. Most states run their own Lemon Law arbitration programs, so check the laws of your state for applicable rules. Usually, but not always, arbitration is binding on the automobile manufacturer but not on the consumer, so check your state rules carefully.
Mediation also involves a neutral third party, but it is the mediator’s job to assist the parties’ settlement efforts. The parties select the mediator, who meets privately with each party to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s case. The mediator helps the parties identify the risks of the case and encourages them to consider how those risks can affect their goals.
Whether arbitration or mediation is feasible and practical usually depends on everyone’s willingness to use these methods. Each alternative usually saves time and expense, but either might not result in a final resolution of the matter. The desirability of these alternatives should be evaluated early to allow for their timely implementation.