California Supreme Court Limits Consumer Lemon Law Protection to Vehicles Purchased in California

Snell & Wilmer

Snell & Wilmer

[co-author: Paige Sorensen*]

In Cummins, Inc. v. Superior Court (2005) 36 Cal.4th 478, 483, the California Supreme Court addressed the issue of “whether a buyer who resides in California may bring suit against a manufacturer under the [Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty] Act when the buyer purchased the vehicle in another state, but brought the vehicle for repair to the manufacturer’s authorized repair facility in California, and repeated attempts to repair the vehicle proved unsuccessful.” The court held that manufacturers are shielded from liability under the Act if the vehicle was not purchased in California. Id.

The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (“the Act”), California Civil Code section 1793 et seq., provides that when a manufacturer fails to repair a new motor vehicle to conform to an express warranty after a reasonable number of repair attempts, the manufacturer must replace the vehicle or pay restitution. Cal. Civ. Code § 1793.2(d)(2). In Cummins, the plaintiffs, during a visit to Idaho, purchased a motor home manufactured by the defendants. Cummins, 36 Cal.4th at 483. The plaintiffs then brought the motor home to their state of residency, California. Id. When the manufacturer’s authorized repair facilities in California failed to remedy the motor home’s alleged defects after numerous repair attempts, the plaintiffs sought relief for breach of express warranty and violation of the Act. Id. The determination of whether the plaintiffs were entitled to relief boiled down to “whether the refund-or-replace provisions contained in subdivision (d)(2) of section 1793.2 [of the Act] apply to vehicles purchased outside of California.” Id. at 486.

Section 1793.2(d)(2) reads “if the manufacturer or its representative in this state does not service or repair the goods to conform to the applicable express warranties after a reasonable number of attempts, the manufacturer shall either replace the goods or reimburse the buyer in an amount equal to the purchase price paid by the buyer, less that amount directly attributable to use by the buyer prior to the discovery of the nonconformity.” Cal. Civ. Code § 1793.2(d)(2) (emphasis added). The plaintiffs contended that because section 1793.2(d)(2) contains no express limitation to vehicles sold in California, the provision does not require the vehicle of issue to have been purchased in California. Cummins, 36 Cal.4th at 486.

Construing the plain language of the statute holistically to ascertain the Legislature’s intent, the court held that the Legislature did not intend for the refund-or-replace provisions of the Act to extend to consumers who did not purchase the motor vehicle of issue in California. Cummins, 36 Cal.4th at 487. Subdivision (a) of section 1793.2 requires manufacturers of “consumer goods sold in this state and for which the manufacturer has made an express warranty” to maintain or designate repair facilities in the state. Id. (emphasis added). Thus, it follows that the modifier “consumer goods sold in this state” modifies not only subdivision (a), but also subsequent subdivisions (b), (c), and (d). Id. at 489. The court emphasized that section 1793.2 uses repeated phrases and language throughout, so the Legislature likely intended for subdivision (d)(2) of section 1793.2 to be subject to the same limitation imposed on subdivision (a) of section 1793.2. Id. The court found further support in the notice requirement outlined in section 1793.1, which requires a notice of rights to be included in every work order or repair invoice for warranty repairs. Id. at 492. The notice must state “[a] buyer of this product in California has the right to have this product serviced or repaired during the warranty period,” thus further showing the Legislature’s intent to limit manufacturers’ liability under the Act to that for motor vehicles purchased in California. Id. (emphasis added). The decision in Cummins effectively limits manufacturers’ liability under the Act from uncertainties that would arise if the Act were applicable to motor vehicles purchased outside of California. Id. The contrary conclusion reached by the Court of Appeal had left pertinent questions unanswered. Id. at 493. For example, could a nonresident sue under the Act if she brought her vehicle to California for a single repair attempt after repeated unsuccessful repair attempts in the state of sale? Id. Instead, the California Supreme Court’s holding in Cummins provides a certain, understandable, and simplistic rule: the Act applies only to motor vehicles purchased in California. Id. at 483.

*Paige Sorensen is a 2023 summer associate in Snell & Wilmer’s Orange County office and is not admitted to practice law. She is anticipated to graduate from Yale Law School in June 2025.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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