What Is Considered as a ‘Substantial Impairment’ Under CA Lemon Law?

5 Mins read


When purchasing a new or used vehicle, you have certain expectations. You expect the car to be free of defects and to operate in a manner that is safe and reliable. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Sometimes you find yourself with a car that just doesn’t work right. 

That’s why lemon laws exist, to protect consumers who purchase or lease vehicles that turn out to be faulty. Lemon laws vary by state, but in general, they provide remedies for customers who have tried unsuccessfully to get their car fixed by the manufacturer. Typically, in the form of a refund or replacement vehicle.

To qualify as a lemon under California lemon law, a vehicle must:

  • Be covered under the manufacturer or dealer warranty when the defect or nonconformity was first reported; and
  • Have one or more defect/nonconformities that “substantially” impair the vehicle’s use, value, or safety; and
  • Have been subjected to a reasonable number of repair attempts by a manufacturer-certified facility to fix the defect/nonconformity; or
  • Have been out of service for repairs on one or more defects/nonconformities for at least 30 days; and
  • The defect or nonconformity must not have been caused by driver abuse or neglect.

Of these requirements, the term “substantial impairment” is often a gray area. What may be considered “substantially impaired” to you may not be regarded as such by others. Moreover, the manufacturer will likely dispute a “substantial” defect in a lemon law claim. 

So, how do you know if your vehicle’s defect/nonconformity is considered a substantial impairment? Here’s everything you need to know.

Key Elements of a “Substantial Impairment”

Under CA lemon law, an impairment is considered “substantial” if it affects one or more of the following areas:

The Safety of the Driver or Passengers 

When selling a vehicle, car companies are obligated to ensure it is safe for drivers and passengers. Automakers put each vehicle through detailed quality assurance protocols before it can be sold to consumers. However, no manufacturer is perfect – some defects slip through the cracks. 

Defects that compromise the safety of the passengers may qualify as “substantial”. This can include issues with seat belts, airbags, door latches, AC/heat, brakes, and so on. With a good attorney, you can argue that almost any defect is a threat to driver safety. 

The Functionality of the Vehicle

Vehicles are sold with an implied notion that the machine works for its intended purpose.  In other words, all components should work properly when the consumer uses the vehicle. If any defect impairs the vehicle’s functionality, it may qualify as “substantial”. 

Common issues that impact the vehicle’s functionality include (but are not limited to): electrical issues, engine problems, transmission malfunctions, GPS/software failures, etc. 

The Value of the Vehicle

This is one of the broadest qualifications of defects under lemon law. 

Automakers will commonly argue that a defect is not “substantial” enough for the vehicle to be ruled a lemon. For example, this could be related to a defective CD player, radio knob, etc. With the right legal counsel, you could make the case that any issue – even the seemingly minor ones – impact the value of the vehicle and you deserve a buyback. 

What to Do If  You Think You Have a Lemon

Chances are, you’ve never dealt with lemon before. In the grand scheme of things, lemon vehicles are extremely rare. A single defect doesn’t always mean you have a lemon – it needs to meet the state’s qualifications. Here is what to do if you think you have a lemon. 

Step One: Check the Warranty 

If you’ve been experiencing issues with your purchased or leased vehicle, step one is to examine the manufacturer or dealer warranty. Once you confirm it is covered, the next move is to get in touch with the manufacturer/dealership you purchased or leased the vehicle from. They will direct you to a certified repair facility to examine/fix the defect. 

Step Two: Begin the Repair Process

Once the manufacturer instructs you to a repair facility, take your vehicle there as soon as possible. Do not waste any time in getting the repairs you need. 


Do not, under any circumstance, take your warranty-covered vehicle to a third-party mechanic. Any work they do on your vehicle may void the warranty, which can invalidate your lemon law claim. If any issues come up while the vehicle is under warranty, they MUST be examined by the manufacturer’s technicians. 

Be sure to hold onto every repair order, invoice, and record the technicians provide. If the vehicle turns out to be a lemon, these pieces of documentation will be crucial in building your claim. 

Step Three: Contact a California Lemon Law Lawyer

If your vehicle cannot be repaired by manufacturer-certified technicians, your next move is to pursue a lemon claim. This is not a process you want to face on your own. Even if your vehicle is clearly defective, the manufacturer has no intention of compensating you for it. 

Automakers are global brands with large reputations to protect – and they are worth billions of dollars. Processing a lemon is not only expensive, admitting they sold a defective vehicle is a strike against their image. These companies have the best legal defense teams money can buy. Without a skilled lemon law attorney California, your chances of winning a claim are slim to none. 

Once you believe your vehicle meets the state’s qualifications of a lemon, you do not even need to speak with the manufacturer anymore. These representatives have many different tricks to talk you out of hiring an attorney. Don’t take the bait. Hiring a skilled lemon law lawyer to manage your claim is the best thing you can do to earn fair compensation. 

Step Four: Help Your Attorney Build the Claim

Once you hire a reputable attorney, the next step is gathering evidence and documentation to create your claim. The more paperwork you provide, the better your chances of earning rightful compensation. 

On a baseline level, this should include: 

  • The purchase order for the vehicle
  • Warranty terms 
  • Closed repair orders 
  • Down payment made on the vehicle 
  • All monthly payments made 
  • Remaining balance of the loan 
  • All official costs paid for the vehicle (sales tax, registration, etc.)
  • Receipts for all incidental costs associated with the lemon (towing costs, hotel stays, cab fares, meals, etc.)

Your attorney will instruct you on everything they need to build the claim. Do your best to gather documentation as quickly as possible – as this will do a lot to speed up the process. 

Step Five: Be Patient

Once you’ve provided all the necessary documentation to your attorney, they will manage the process from here. This involves negotiating your settlement with the manufacturer. Keep in mind, no attorney can guarantee results. However, most will do everything in their power to earn a speedy buyback – as they don’t get paid until they win the case. 

The good news is most lemon law claims are settled out of court in a few months or less. In the rare instance the case goes to trial, the timeline will be extended. The best thing you can do now is to leave it in the hands of professionals.

In Conclusion

Ending up with a lemon is extremely frustrating. If a defective vehicle made it through the company’s QA protocols and was sold to you, you shouldn’t have to pay the price for their mistakes. 

It’s important to understand that you are not alone in your journey to earning fair compensation from the manufacturer. The lemon law attorney you hire will be in your corner from start to finish. 

The best part? 

Lemon law attorneys work on a contingency fee agreement. Manufacturers are required to pay for all your legal costs and attorney fees as part of the settlement. This means your attorney will not ask for a penny out of pocket to take your case. In other words, ANYONE with a legitimate lemon vehicle can afford a skilled attorney

Do yourself a favor and get the process started as soon as possible.

About author
Brian K. Cline’s Lemon Law Legal Group provides premier legal services. Our California lemon law lawyers aggressively and ethically force vehicle manufacturers to buy back defective and dangerous vehicles. Our team includes experienced trial lawyers with over 40 years of combined trial experience.
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