I’m not sure I should tell this story because nobody will ever want to do business with me again. But I am so proud of Vermont for making it happen that I think it is worth being blacklisted just to get the word out.
I am the only guy I know who used the Vermont Lemon Law and won a brand new car. I may be the only guy I know who used the Vermont Lemon Law, period.
First, let me say that my local dealership, which I will not name, supported me every step of the way. The international manufacturer of the car tried to walk away from the problem.
I had spent a lifetime buying second-hand cars which never cost more than $500 apiece (at one time I owned three $500 junkers and simply left one at my backyard mechanic’s house in South Royalton all the time, and rotated them as each one broke down.) In 2003 at age 58, I was finally able to afford the payments on a new car and I bought a small foreign sports car.
After 800 miles, I noticed in my driver’s side mirror that the rear fender had three index-finger sized ripples in it, almost like a barbecue grill. When I investigated I discovered that although you could see them as ripples, they didn’t actually feel like ripples. It wasn’t exactly an optical illusion, the ripples seemed to be under the clear coat and paint, but not enough to detect by rubbing your hand across the fender.
I wrote the overseas manufacturer a letter mentioning that I was writing after driving the car 825 miles, saying I was very disappointed since this was the first new car I had ever been able to afford, also mentioning that I had purchased the extra bumper-to-bumper 100,000-mile warranty.
They ignored my letter. But — and this is key — I kept a Xerox copy and I also sent the letter certified mail and kept that receipt.
Fast-forward one and a half years to 2004 and 20,000 miles. I’m looking in the same mirror at the same driver’s side rear fender and there are now nine finger-sized ripples, not three. I asked the dealership to notify the manufacturer. The manufacturer said sorry, but there was nothing it could do. That got my goat. It just wasn’t right, so I notified the dealership I would use the Lemon Law and the dealership quietly agreed I was right to do so.
To the Lemon Law court I went.
Vermont didn’t make it easy. I needed certified copies of my sales slip, my warranty, the checks for my first and most recent payments and the bank withdrawal records for those amounts and any correspondence with the manufacturer.
Then Vermont officials said the Lemon Law applies only to mechanical defects; they could not take the case.
But, I protested, your Lemon Law says it applies to “anything that materially affects the (resale) value of the car.” And these ripples mean I can’t resell the car for its true value. Vermont agreed with me, and accepted my case.
Like all courts, this one notified me of the time and place of my hearing, in Montpelier, which turned out to be the coldest day in February 2005 at 9 in the morning. It also reminded me that it was the complainant’s responsibility to make sure the defect could be observed by the judges in person at the time of the hearing.
That meant that I would have to have the car washed the night before and hope that the snowy roads wouldn’t dirty it up again since there would be no time to rewash it at 9 a.m. Luckily, it was so cold that the snow on the roads was not slushy and the car arrived in beautiful, washed condition, ripples showing like an athlete’s six-pack.
The court was convened, and I was sworn in. My dealer’s representative was there with a tie on and the manufacturer’s representative wore a long black overcoat, a black suit and tie and shiny black leather shoes.
In other words, he looked like a city slicker. By contrast, and by design on my part, I wore Timberland boots, a lumberjack checked shirt — and a black necktie to show my respect.
The judges all were knowledgeable car people. One crusty old Vermonter who seemed to be a mechanic himself asked the city-slicker rep, “Do you have any idea how the ripples got on the complainant’s car?” The rep replied, “ Maybe the complainant leaned on the car.”
The crusty judge interrupted and suddenly addressed me in his gravelly voice, “Did you get a driver’s manual with that car?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, a bit intimidated. “Did it say anything about not leaning on the car in that manual?” “No, sir,” I said.
The city-slicker wilted. I secretly felt relieved and momentarily victorious.
The judges adjourned outside in the frigid cold to look at my car. All of them agreed that the nine-pack of ripples could clearly be seen. The gruff judge announced, “You will receive our judgment in the mail two months from now on the 15th of the month” and walked away. The hearing was over and I had no idea how it went, except for that sweet moment of vindication.
I drove back to White River Junction and waited, not feeling so confident any more.
Exactly two months later on the 15th of the month, an official letter arrived in the mailbox. It said the judges “rule in favor of the complainant.” Since the manufacturer did not answer the certified letter sent after only 825 miles had been driven on the car, the judgment was backed up to that odometer reading and I was awarded “either the full purchase price or a new car of equal value.”
I took the new car.
I have told this story only to a few people in the last 10 years, and it’s time to get that story out — of how proud I am that Vermont stood up for the little guy.
If I could write my own obituary, I would want the headline to read: “Won a new car with the Vermont Lemon Law in 2005.”
I’m counting on another Vermont law to make me proud: Death with Dignity. Maddeningly to this writer, I won’t have the last word on my experience with that.
Paul Keane lives in Hartford.
This article was not written by Michigan Lemon Law.
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