California Lemon Law and the ‘Serious Bodily Injury’ Standard

There is no doubt that General Motors’ botched handling of defective ignition switches was callous and incompetent. Engineers knew of the problem as early as 2004. The recall debacle has rippled through the company. To her credit, this week the new CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, announced that 15 employees, many of them executives, have been fired over their poor handling of the situation. Consumer advocates are watching closely to see whether this action is an effective means of changing the corporate culture at GM, or just another desperate effort at damage control.

California Lemon Law and the Serious Bodily Injury Standard

Termination is a severe reprimand. But is even this remedial action enough to comfort those scores of suffering families whose loved ones were killed or injured in accidents caused by defects that could have been prevented? What may be a ripple for a corporation is a tsunami of pain for human beings. It is hard to imagine the devastating feeling of a driver whose loved one is killed in the passenger seat. Then add arrest to that agony. Consider the case of a Texas woman, Candice Anderson, who pleaded guilty to negligent homicide of her fiance under these circumstances. She has now learned that the faulty ignition components in the Saturn Ion she was driving caused the fatal crash for which she took the blame. Meanwhile she lives with a felony on her record and a hole in her heart. You can read the story of this tragedy here.

The California lemon law, commonly known as the Song-Beverly Act, is one of the strongest in the country. In addition to the remedies it provides to consumers themselves, the Song-Beverly Act is a legislative attempt to use the law of warranty to improve the safety of vehicles on California highways. Even though it provides actual damages in the event of an accident resulting in personal injury, the idea behind the law is to prevent that fatal outcome by forcing manufacturers to act responsibly before tragedy strikes.

To that end, the California lemon law sets an easier standard for consumers to meet when the defect could result in serious injury. The California version of the lemon law was amended to add that liability is triggered when: “The same nonconformity results in a condition that is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if the vehicle is driven and the nonconformity has been subject to repair two or more times by the manufacturer or its agents, and the buyer or lessee has at least once directly notified the manufacturer of the need for the repair of the nonconformity.” For example, in proving the manufacturer has not repaired a vehicle within a reasonable time under warranty, the consumer need only show he or she had taken it in for repairs twice for certain components like brakes or steering.

One of the problems with the GM ignition switch was that it was not just about a simple switch, which sounds trivial on its face. The ignition switch on the steering column of the Chevrolet Cobalt, Ion and other compacts was so poorly designed that it easily slipped out of the run position, causing engines to stall. A faulty ignition switch could cause overall loss of power to the vehicle that rendered aspects of the brakes and steering system inoperative as well.

For other answers to common questions about the California Lemon law click here.

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