Lemon Aid

Todd Dills | March 01, 2011

Only one state is known for strong protection against a chronically malfunctioning truck.

Retired owner-operator Mike Noll, of Sun Prairie, Wis., ended his trucking career on a sour note. His last truck, a 2000 model outfitted with a 600-hp, 2,000-plus lb.-ft. torque Cummins, had a 60-inch double-bunk sleeper, refrigerator and other creature comforts.

But soon after purchasing the truck new, he began to have problems with the suspension and other issues “they would work on, but they never really could get it all fixed.” The truck was in the shop about 100 days the first year.

Noll, living and having bought the truck in Wisconsin, was in a better position than most other operators who are saddled with a lemon. His wife, who worked with the Wisconsin bar association, looked up state law on warranties and lemon vehicles. They discovered that, though every state has a “lemon law” protecting new car buyers from defective vehicles, most laws have little to no application to commercial trucks.

Wisconsin’s law, however, is broad enough to apply also to Class 8 trucks, and appears to be the only such law that has resulted in a sizable number of successful lawsuits for new truck buyers. After a recent such case, questions have risen as to whether such laws ought to be more widespread.

“There’s not much to talk about in lemon law when it comes to trucks,” says Milwaukee area attorney Vince Megna, of Aiken & Scoptur, “except that there aren’t any, and the need for them. A lot of truck drivers call me, but for the ones that are out of state, there’s nothing that can be done.”

Megna handled the case of owner-operator Randy Seeman, who hauled sand and other commodities in dump trailers in the Midwest from his and his son’s Jewel Trucking in Janesville, Wis., until recently. The two work now as company drivers. In January, Seeman was awarded $290,000 when a jury found his 2007 model tractor to be a lemon.

A motor vehicle bought in Wisconsin is legally a lemon if it satisfies one of two conditions in the first year of ownership or while the vehicle is under the manufacturer’s warranty: 1) A defect remains after four unsuccessful repair attempts by the originating dealer or 2) The vehicle was out of service for 30 days or more during the warranty period due to defects. Under lemon law, the manufacturer of the truck – not the engine or transmission, for instance – is the liable party to whom claims are made.

The Seemans’ truck satisfied both conditions, the jury found. Under Wisconsin law, written to discourage manufacturers from taking lemon claims to court, automatic double damages apply in a successful plaintiff suit. In the Seemans’ case, Megna says the manufacturer turned down a settlement offer of $55,000, only to end up footing a much larger bill.

Attorneys’ fees, likewise, under Wisconsin law are shifted to the defendant. Noll speculates that’s one reason his case was settled, with Wisconsin attorney Lawrence Alan Towers representing him. After being decided in state court in favor of Noll, his case was initially appealed to a federal jurisdiction by the defendants, who “then thought better of their decision and offered me a settlement that was very advantageous toward me,” Noll says. Under the settlement, he agreed not to disclose its amount, but says, “It would have been cheaper for them to replace the truck.”

Towers says as manufacturers want to avoid the cost of lengthy litigation, and have seen attorneys’ success in prosecuting lemon claims in Wisconsin, many are quick to settle with owners to replace or repurchase the truck. Towers has lost only one such trial in the past 20 years. He estimates 98 percent of claims settled “gained the result we originally set out to get,” including a nearly $2.5 million settlement of a fleet case involving 32 trucks with identical problems.

That doesn’t mean manufacturers agree with how the law is written. Truck Manufacturers Association spokesman Joe Suchecki says the customer-manufacturer relationship in the heavy truck market differs from that in the automotive market. “We really don’t feel it’s appropriate to apply broad-based lemon laws without distinguishing between heavy, medium and light-duty vehicles,” he says.

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