Mechanical problems after buying a vehicle? What you need to know.

used car (as-is, no warranty): probably no legal protections

Minnesota law makes it challenging to bring a case for mechanical issues on used cars that were sold as is. The only clear-cut way to defeat as-is would be if the dealer provided you with a warranty or service contract. The warranty, though, likely has to be the dealer’s warranty, not a warranty through a third party.

Another possible way around “as-is” is when the dealer lies about a vehicle’s condition. But this type of case may not require a dealer to pay the buyer’s attorney fees, so you have to do a cost-benefit analysis before paying an attorney to handle the case.

The law is stronger if you vehicle has an undisclosed prior accident, flood, or odometer rollback, but mechanical issues on as-is vehicles can be difficult to do anything about.

used car (with warranty): federal law protects you

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that provides a legal claim against anyone who fails to honor their obligations under a written warranty--even if the vehicle was bought used. The MMWA only applies to consumer goods, which are goods that are normally used for personal, family, or household purposes. The MMWA gives buyers a legal claim for damages against anyone who doesn't honor their obligations under a written warranty or vehicle service contract. The Act also requires the warrantor to pay the buyer's attorney fees and costs if the buyer brings a successful case.

To bring a viable case under the Act, you will likely need to have a mechanic inspect your vehicle and be willing to testify that the problems should be covered by your warranty.

New car — Minnesota’s lemon law protects you

Most people use the term "lemon" to describe any vehicle that has repeated problems. But in Minnesota the "lemon law” is a statute that protects buyers of new vehicles that have problems that are covered by a warranty and that can't be fixed.

There are six basic elements to a lemon law claim in Minnesota:

  • (1) The defect has to be covered by the manufacturer's warranty.

  • (2) The defect has to arise and be reported to the manufacturer or authorized dealer within two years of the date of purchase or within the term of the manufacturer's warranty, whichever date is earlier. Although there are certain circumstances where this time period can be extended, in general, the lemon law doesn't protect you against problems that crop up after two years.

  • (3) You have to give the manufacturer a reasonable opportunity to fix the defect. If you've given the manufacturer four or more opportunities to fix the same problem, or if they've had your vehicle for 30 or more days, the law presumes that they have had a reasonable opportunity to fix the issue. On one of these attempts, you have to give the manufacturer written notice of the problems. Also, if the problem affects the steering or braking systems, you may only have to allow one repair attempt.

  • (4) The defect has to still be present after the manufacturer has had a reasonable opportunity to fix it. In Minnesota, at least, the court is going to want to know whether there is still a problem.

  • (5) The problem has to substantially impair the use or value of the vehicle. This is a subjective test that is fact-specific and is usually decided on a case-by-case basis.

  • (6) The defect can't be caused by your negligence or misuse of the vehicle. You can't abuse or neglect your vehicle and then blame the manufacturer for not being able to fix it.

Before starting a lawsuit under Minnesota's lemon law, you have to engage in an Alternative Dispute Resolution process if the manufacturer offers one. The manufacturer of your vehicle will be able to give you information about their informal dispute process. This ADR process is not binding, though, and you can bring a lawsuit in court if you believe the ADR result is unjust.

If you bring a successful lemon law claim, you have the choice of a refund or replacement. The refund has to include the full purchase price of the vehicle, although there may be an offset for the mileage you've driven the vehicle. If you elect a replacement vehicle, it has to be one of comparable to the one you're returning. In addition, the manufacturer has to pay for your attorney fees and costs for bringing the lawsuit.