Lemon Aid

Todd Dills | March 01, 2011

In most cases, Suchecki says, truck “owners participate in the specification of the truck and there’s a lot of back and forth,” he says. “There’s a much bigger relationship between them and the manufacturers,” one reason lemon laws aren’t usually applied to commercial trucks.

Towers believes issues with emissions systems have in recent years made claims somewhat more frequent. He tells the story of a client whose 2008 model truck was replaced in February 2010 with a 2010 model, which was then repurchased in October after similar issues.

ATBS Maintenance Management Business Consultant Bill McClusky notes recent diesel technology advances make diagnosis and repair of complex truck systems more difficult. “We used to use the term mechanic,” he says of shop personnel. “But these trucks have changed dramatically over the years. It’s no longer a mechanical engine – there is so much in the way of electronics.”

Today’s diesel technician also has to be computer savvy and quick to learn, he adds. “You used to get two or three service bulletins a month on engines. Now it’s two or three a day.”

The growing complexity of truck systems, McClusky says, is further complicated by the limited resources available for training and paying technicians, as well as regulations that affect engine technology. He calls changes stemming from the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions regulations as bringing about a “maintenance nightmare.”

Suchecki says TMA doesn’t monitor the frequency of lemon claims in Wisconsin or elsewhere, and doesn’t hear from its members about claims. But an apparent dearth of claims in states other than Wisconsin, he reasons, indicates that for most truck buyers, “these laws are probably more trouble than they’re worth – they make resolution of the issues more complicated than just dealing with the dealer.”

Having a lemon law for commercial trucks “opens the door to abuse,” says Mack Trucks spokesman John Walsh. “Instead of resorting to legal claims, we encourage our customers to work with their dealers regarding product concerns. That’s the most efficient and cost-effective approach.”

Other truck manufacturers declined to comment on lemon laws or did not respond to interview requests.

Megna estimates he’s handled 20 commercial truck cases in his decades of practice, and Towers says he’s filed “at least 100” truck cases since the early 1990s. Towers says other states’ exclusion of commercial trucks from lemon law protection seems to result from a faulty assumption that all business users have leverage against manufacturers to get problems dealt with satisfactorily.

Megna speculated the best way to get states to take notice would be for out-of-state owner-operators to buy in Wisconsin solely for the lemon law protection. “Say I live in Iowa but I went across the border and bought in Wisconsin,” says Megna. “If even a few owner-operators did that, it would create some concern in Iowa and a focus on the problem.” While one way to prove a lemon in Wisconsin is documentation of four unsuccessful repair attempts made by the originating dealer, the law does not require buyers to obtain service at the originating dealer in order to satisfy the 30-days out-of-service threshold written into the law. Only practical matters – taking delivery of the truck in Wisconsin, the potential maintenance import of a solid relationship with a dealer you know well – make buying there a negative prospect for owner-operators elsewhere.

Noll concluded his lemon truck had been built with components, including too-thin fuel lines, designed for a much less powerful engine than the 600-hp Cummins. He attributes it to a simple assembly error, and is thankful for the lemon law protection. Reflecting on the broader implications, he says, without a lemon law “these companies can run all over you. I don’t care what you’re manufacturing – if someone on the line screws it up, you should fix it, especially with a Class 8 truck. When it’s your livelihood, a problem can really kill you.”

That was Noll’s last truck, after 45 years mostly spent as an owner-operator. He suffered a stroke shortly before his case ended, then sold the truck for a bargain basement price.

National lemon law lineup

Wisconsin’s award of automatic double damages to lemon owners who win trial cases against manufacturers is unique among states whose laws are written broadly enough to cover trucks. In other states that cover trucks, laws are generally disadvantageous to buyers.

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