Four decades ago, a freshman state representative from South Windsor noticed something about the cases coming into his private law practice.
More and more of them were about poorly made new cars.
The young state representative, John Woodcock, did some research and found that car consumers had few legal protections. About the only thing they could do was sue the manufacturer, which took a lot of time and money, and came with uncertain outcomes.
So Woodcock drafted a bill requiring that manufacturers replace vehicles under warranty when repeated attempts to repair them were unsuccessful. Woodcock introduced the bill in the Legislature, boosted by the protests of an angry consumer, Dan Brochu of New London, who paid $6,500 for a 1980 Oldsmobile Omega that gave him nothing but trouble.
The electrical system failed, the paint peeled, the manual transmission slipped, and water pooled inside. In 18 months, the Oldsmobile was in the repair shop 135 days, Brochu said. It was a bad car, he said. A lemon.
And so An Act Concerning Automobile Warranties, signed by Gov. William O’Neill in June 1982, came to be known as the Lemon Law. It was the first of its kind in the United States. Now all 50 states have one.
The history lesson comes from Central Connecticut State University’s Center for Public Policy & Social Research, which posted the information on its website last month to mark the 40th anniversary of the Lemon Law.
According to another website, Today in Connecticut History, which offers information from the Office of the State Historian, Woodcock’s law set time limits for dealers and manufacturers to make repairs covered under warranty. It was designed to help owners of defective vehicles less than 2 years old or with fewer than 24,000 miles on the odometer.
If the vehicle could not be fixed in four attempts, the manufacturer had to replace it or give the consumer a full refund.
Two years later, in 1984, the Legislature passed Lemon Law II, which established an arbitration procedure in the Department of Consumer Protection to resolve disputes between car owners and manufacturers.
Woodcock kept going. According to the state history website, he pushed through a law protecting consumers who bought used “lemons,” and another law that prohibits tampering with an odometer.
The Lemon Law has been updated over time, most recently with a measure last year that allows the Department of Consumer Protection to fine manufacturers up to $1,000 a day if they fail to comply with an arbitrator’s decision by a certain deadline.
This week state Attorney General William Tong announced that his office, representing the Department of Consumer Protection, sued Jaguar Land Rover of North America for failing to comply with the latest Lemon Law.
In the first suit to be filed under the new law, Jaguar Land Rover will pay a $26,500 fine, Tong’s office said.
The case is based on a Lemon Law complaint filed by Nathaniel Paulino, who leased a 2019 Range Rover Velar S from Jaguar Land Rover in Fairfield on July 9, 2019. It had 39 miles on the odometer.
Two months later, according to the complaint, the touch-screen control system blacked out. Then lights malfunctioned and the coolant pump failed. Then the air conditioner failed, the collision warning system flashed false alerts, and the windshield wipers malfunctioned, among other problems.
Despite repairs, the problems recurred for two years.
After Paulino filed a Lemon Law complaint, an arbitrator ruled that the vehicle contained “a substantial defect” and Paulino should be refunded about $6,250 plus a pro-rated portion of a $2,900 extended warranty contract for his leased vehicle. The manufacturer agreed, according to the complaint.
Jaguar Land Rover had 30 days to pay. The deadline, Jan. 26 of this year, came and went, the complaint states. The manufacturer did not comply until March 1, despite multiple notices and warnings, according to Tong’s office, and the fines added up.
Before the imposition of penalties for failure to pay, “it was exceedingly difficult to compel a manufacturer to provide the consumer with an award – a refund or a replacement vehicle – by the date specified by the arbitrator,” said Kaitlyn Krasselt, communications director for the Department of Consumer Protection. “The department did not have the legal authority to penalize a manufacturer for delayed payments to consumers. That … often caused consumers to make additional lease or loan payments.”
According to the department and the attorney general’s office, the Lemon Law program has returned almost $70 million in refunds and replacement vehicles to Connecticut consumers in the 40 years since it was enacted.
In the 2020-21 fiscal year, 59 cases were closed, returning almost $2 million to consumers in refunds or returns. Last year, 77 consumers filed Lemon Law applications.
The law, pushed through the Legislature by a young lawmaker 40 years ago, has always been fueled by consumers.
When Brochu, the owner of the lemon Oldsmobile, took his protest to Hartford to support Woodcock’s bill in 1982, another angry consumer, Thomas Ziemba, flew his Cessna over the state capital. Ziemba’s plane trailed a banner reading, “My ‘82 Chevy is one reason Conn. needs a Lemon Law.”
To file a Lemon Law complaint, visit ct.gov/dcp/lemon. Consumers also may email DCP.LemonLaw@ct.gov or call (860) 713-6120, or the toll-free line (800) 538-CARS (2277).