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Automobile Recalls And The New York Lemon Law

Published June 4, 2013
As a New York Lemon Law attorney, it’s my business to keep up to date on what is happening in the automotive industry.  Since I focus on automobile problems, I find myself reading quite a bit about manufacturer recalls.

Just about all of us have received, seemingly out of the blue, a letter from an automobile manufacturer letting us know that our car is subject to a safety recall.  We often receive these letters many years after we purchase our cars.  For instance, I recently received a recall notice from Honda for the headlight assembly of a Honda CR-V that I purchased in August of 2003.  As one might expect, the letter indicated that some sort of defect had been identified which could possibly pose a safety risk to the occupants of my vehicle.  It then asked me to bring the vehicle to a dealership for repair at Honda’s expense.  Of course, it didn’t provide any suggestions on how I might be able to get to work or pick up my children from day care without transportation.  But that isn’t Honda’s problem is it?

One thing about safety recalls that I find interesting is that I see very few Lemon Law cases based on them.  There are some exceptions of course.  We did receive several calls concerning unanticipated acceleration in Toyota vehicles prior to that issue blowing up in the press a few years ago.  But in the vast majority of cases, we hear nothing about these problems either before or after a recall is issued.  And strangely enough, on the other hand, we’ll often have multiple Lemon Law cases for the same defect on a particular model where no safety recall is ever issued at all.

A recent article in Popular Mechanics magazine does a great job of explaining why.  In the past, there was no affirmative duty for manufacturers to spontaneously issue a safety recall.  They only had to issue one if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required it.  In 2000, a Federal law was passed, the TREAD Act, which required that manufacturers proactively notify NHTSA of safety issues that they have identified in their own vehicles.  Failure to do so could result in significant penalties.  In order to limit potential civil liability and avoid scrutiny from NHTSA, car companies started to proactively issue recalls for any and all potential safety concerns – even for issues that hardly ever happen.

This ‘err on the side of caution’ mentality has its costs.  Certainly manufacturers are incurring an enormous expense repairing things that aren’t necessarily broken and are unlikely to ever become problematic.  Consumers are incurring an opportunity cost expense in taking the time to have their vehicles repaired.  It’s likely that some lives are saved by this cautious approach.  But we could save lives too by lowering speed limits, and the trend is quite the opposite.  The implication is that there is indeed a tradeoff between efficiency and safety.  Like it or not, the TREAD Act pushes the bias a little bit more towards the safety side of the equation.  

From the perspective of the New York Lemon Law, what matters is whether a sufficient number of repairs (or days down for repair) have occurred during the 2 year / 18,000 mile presumption period.  So the existence of a recall on your vehicle means very little in the absence of actual repairs.  Assuming there are indeed actual repairs, the existence of a safety recall might have some evidentiary weight in terms of the safety impact of a particular issue – which bears on the ‘substantialness’ defense that manufacturers raise. But the fact that a safety recall simply exists wouldn’t give rise to a New York Lemon Law claim in and of itself.  Since most of the issues addressed by these safety recalls hardly ever occur in real life, it stands to reason that few Lemon Law cases could result from them.

So in conclusion, while we do keep an eye on safety recalls, and often publicize them so that our clients are made aware that they exist, we don’t always view them as necessarily helpful from a Lemon Law perspective.  That said, if you are experiencing an actual problem with your vehicle, whether or not a safety recall has been issued, I would be happy to look at your case and see if we can help you.



Eugene Krukas, Esq.

2704 Grand Ave

Suite 4

Bellmore, NY 11710

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