A consumer who claims to have bought a lemon doesn't need to use any "magic words" in asking the manufacturer to replace the defective vehicle, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled.
As a result, the court unanimously reinstated a lawsuit against Mazda North American Operations and the selling dealership by a customer who contends her 2001 Tribute was a lemon.
In February 2001 Adele Garcia bought the car new from Hall Imports Inc., which does business as Hall Mazda in Brookfield, according to court documents. She almost immediately experienced transmission problems, the documents said. She returned the Tribute to the dealership several times for servicing, but it was never successfully repaired, according to the court decision.
In September of that year, Garcia wrote to Mazda demanding a replacement under the state lemon law but didn't explicitly offer to transfer title to the original car back to Mazda. Attempts to negotiate a settlement failed, and she sued.
Both a lower court judge and the state appeals court rejected the suit, ruling that consumers must expressly offer to transfer title when they demand replacement of a lemon.
Not so, the Supreme Court said in an opinion by Justice David Prosser.
"A consumer's demand for a replacement vehicle under the Wisconsin Lemon Law necessarily implies an offer to transfer title," the court said. It added: "The statute does not require the consumer to use any 'magic words.'"
The court said manufacturers are free to decide whether to ask consumers to clarify their lemon-law demands. Garcia's lawyer, Vincent Megna of Waukesha, said the case "shows how the manufacturers will grasp at anything technical" to avoid liability.
Garcia is seeking double damages plus attorney fees. The Supreme Court ordered a trial to resolve factual issues, including whether the Tribute actually was a lemon and whether Mazda violated the lemon law.
Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes called the decision disappointing. He said the company "had done everything, and more, that's required by the law," including ordering a replacement. Barnes said Garcia refused to accept it.