Thirty years ago today, the nation’s first new car lemon law took effect in Connecticut, providing consumers with a real remedy, or a refund, when their new car was a lemon. California’s law, championed by Rosemary Shahan of CARS, followed very closely, but Connecticut was first. Every state (list at Center for Auto Safety) now has a new car lemon law and consumers are better off for it. Estimates are that the Connecticut law has saved consumers $60 million.
Here’s a statement from ConnPIRG, which participated today in a symposium at Central Connecticut State University, along with John Woodcock, the law’s author, and others. In 1982, John Woodcock, then a freshman state representative, joined by ConnPIRG, then a small but recognized consumer group, took on both Detroit and the even-more-powerful (in Hartford, that is) Connecticut car dealers. I was ConnPIRG director and our chief lobbyist. Frankly, no one gave us a chance. Yet the law ended up passing overwhelmingly.
We won for a lot of reasons. Back then, many more new cars were lemons. And John Woodcock made it his cause and worked hard. ConnPIRG helped him organize events and generate grassroots consumer support. We held press conferences where we handed out lemonade. Car owners brought their lemon cars and massive folders of repeat repair invoices to the state capitol for these press events. As Arlo Guthrie might describe it, many showed off “8×10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows” describing their car malfunctions. One event made national TV news, partly because a lemon owner chartered a plane towing the banner “My ’82 Chevy is one reason Conn. needs a lemon law.” And the Detroit lobbyists shot themselves in the foot when they told “provincial” Hartford legislators that they’d “stop selling cars in Connecticut if the law passed.”
We also won because we were able to convince the local car dealers that the lemon law placed the burden for selling lemon cars on manufacturers, not the dealers. It took a long time to explain to the car dealers that the new law would establish this “privity of contract” between consumers and car makers. But that was the crucial action that turned a tough fight into a landslide. The law’s other crucial provision, of course, is that it defined a lemon as a car that had a non-repairable (in four tries) major defect or had been in the shop 30 days while in warranty. Having a definition of a lemon made it much harder for the now-accountable manufacturers (through privity) to use legal legerdemain and expensive-to-consumers delaying tactics to stop valid claims. Two years later, Lemon Law II established a state attorney-general controlled arbitration program so consumers no longer had to even go to court, but could take advantage of a low-cost, efficient arbitration program (note that our support for a state attorney-general supervised arbitration program based on law is not inconsistent with our strong opposition to the inclusion of forced arbitration clauses into take-it-or-leave-it consumer contracts for banking, telephone and other services).
Another lesson of the lemon law? When states are allowed to take action (e.g., not prevented by arrogant federal preemption efforts), consumers and the marketplace both benefit.