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Lemon Law leaves sour taste in couple’s mouth

Lemon Law leaves sour taste in couple’s mouth

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When Mary Porter went shopping for a new car with her husband in 2010, she was dead-set on buying a red one with a beige interior to keep her cool in the summer.

The goal was to have something that reminded her of the first car she had driven when she was a teenager. The Porters were serious; if they couldn’t find a model matching the description, they were prepared to not buy anything.

Two years later, Porter’s heartfelt preference for a particular color would be at the heart of a case involving the Wisconsin Lemon Law in David G. Porter v. Ford Motor Co., 2014 AP 975. In a recent ruling, the state’s 1st District Court of Appeals found that even though the Lemon Law can require vehicle manufacturers to replace defective products, the replacements do not necessarily have to the match the color or other characteristics of the originals.

Although jurors ultimately found that a Ford Escape bought by the Porters was a “lemon,” the court decided that Ford had responded appropriately by offering the Porters a comparable vehicle in exchange, even if it wasn’t everything she had wanted in a new car.

It all started when David and Mary Porter found what Mrs. Porter called the “perfect” car at Service Motors Ford. The exterior color was premium “Sangria Red Metallic,” reminding her of the color of her first car. It also had a light beige “stone” interior, ideally suited “to deflect and not absorb” heat in the summers.

Two weeks after the purchase papers were signed, and the Porters accepted delivery of their new car on March 1, 2010.

Within a few months, the Porters’ new Escape was caught up in a safety recall issued in response to the discovery of widespread transmission defects. With little delay, the Porters dropped their car off on June 1, 2010, for repairs. What followed in the next six months, according to the Porters, was a maintenance nightmare. The couple had to deal with transmission troubles three more times in 2010 alone.

Ford disputed the Porters’ accounts of both the number and purpose of the resulting repair visits. Regardless of what happened in 2010, the Porters brought the Escape in for additional repairs about three more times in 2011 and then three times again in 2012.

• Judge Paul Van Grunsven, case #2011 CV 16050

• Attorneys for the Porters: Aiken & Scoptur, Milwaukee, Timothy Aiken; Vince Megna; Susan Grzeskaite

• Attorneys for Ford: Gass, Weber, Mullins LLC: Beth Ermatinger Hanan, Milwaukee

In September 2011, the Porters sent Ford a Lemon Law notice. Ford responded within the statutorily required 30 days, notifying the couple that a suitable replacement vehicle was ready to be picked up at Service Motors. David Porter drove over to the dealership to take a look.

He was in for an unpleasant discovery.

In place of the “Sangria Red Metallic” Ford Escape with beige interior he had expected to find, he was offered a new 2012, dark-blue Escape with a dark interior.

lemonlawThe Porters wasted little time in deciding they would reject Ford’s exchange offer. Rather than accept the replacement vehicle, they filed suit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, citing the Wis. Lemon Law, Sect. 218.0171, and the Magnuson-Moss Warrant Act, 15 U.S.C. 234 et. seq (12.1).

After the trial, the jury found that the Porter’s 2010 Escape did indeed fit the definition of a lemon as laid out in the Wisconsin Lemon Law. At the same time, they decided that Ford had taken various “reasonable steps” called for in state statute and had provided a “comparable” car.

Judge Paul Van Grunsven denied the Porters’ request for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, but did require that Ford refund the purchase price of the original 2010 Ford Escape to the Porters.

On appeal of the denial, the Porters did not bring up their contention that a dark blue Escape with a dark interior could never be “comparable” to a “Sangria Red Metallic” Escape with a beige interior. So that point, argued so strenuously at trial, was not considered by the appeals court.

Rather than discuss the replacement vehicle’s color, the Porters argued that Ford had been required to elect a remedy, and should have been barred from relying on various defenses that the Porters deemed to be “inconsistent.”

When Ford, before legal action had even begun, offered a “comparable” car to the Porters’, the couple’s counsel asserted that this offer should have been seen as a concession that the car was indeed a lemon.

Ford should thus have been prevented from proceeding with an “irreconcilable sets of facts,” according to the Porters’ legal representatives. Namely, Ford should not have been allowed to argue, first, that the car was not a lemon; then, second — just in case it was determined to be a lemon — that Ford had taken the reasonable steps required by state statutes by offering a “comparable” vehicle.

The court, though, found no flaws in Ford’s defenses. The Porters had to provide proof related to both elements of Wis. Stat. Sect. 218.0171, showing that the vehicle was a lemon, and that Ford had failed to respond within the provisions of the law, and provide a comparable car or refund.

The Porters asserted that once the car was deemed to be a lemon, the statute should not have been read to require them to further show that Ford had failed to provide a refund or satisfactory replacement. Statutory damages available under the Lemon Law for attorney’s fees, punitive damages, and other expenses should then have been considered.

Requiring new-car buyers to provide proof related to both elements of the Lemon law would discourage customers from protecting their rights, and possibly limit access to the courts by diminishing lawyers’ incentives to represent these customers.

Instead, if buyers are forced both to show that a vehicle is a lemon and also to prove that any vehicle offered as a replacement was not “comparable,” they might simply end up accepting vehicles that are not comparable.

The biggest flaw in arguments of this sort, according to the appellate court, is that the Wisconsin Legislature also intended to give auto manufacturers and dealers a chance to work within the law and provide a remedy of either a new car or a refund, thus discouraging litigation.

Quoting Garcia v. Mazda Motor of America, 2004 WI 93, the judges further explained that it was their responsibility to “liberally construe remedial statutes to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy that the legislature intended.”

In this case, that remedy was not further court action but rather the manufacturer’s offer of a comparable car or a refund without litigation.

“The lemon law was not created to punish manufacturers,” according to the court’s opinion. It was to “get consumers back on the road in a quality car.”

So, because Ford had to respond and defend itself against both elements of the statute in order to defend the Lemon Law claims, the court found no shortcoming in Ford’s defense strategy, and affirmed the lower court’s opinion.


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