Making lemonade out of automotive lemons
The legacy of one of the PIRGs’ most impactful laws that hardly anyone notices anymore
Social change activists often have two rarely-mentioned, koan-like objectives:
- Organize your way out of your current job.
- Pass laws and regulations that will eventually not be used.
The first can be met by accomplishing Objective 2 or by identifying, training and empowering others to do the job. Or, best of all, doing both.
The second can be met (though never perfectly) by crafting policies and running campaigns that win hearts and minds. In the long run, they lead opponents to wither away or concede that the new way of going about things isn’t that bad.
An example of a Public Interest Network campaign that met those objectives — while illustrating the early use of some classic PIRG practices — is one that most people have never heard of.
It’s the effort in the 1970s-80s to successfully pass the Lemon Law in states across the country.
The Lemon Law deals with defective automobiles, which, beginning in the early 1900s, were labelled as “lemons”.
And, geez, were there a lot of sub-standard cars — new and old — being passed off to Americans in the 1970s!
Back in that golden era of sloppy manufacturing, if something went wrong, owners had to haul the car to the dealership. And the dealers’ only legal obligation was to repair the car “satisfactorily” in a “reasonable” amount of time.
Suffice it to say that the terrible reputation that American car manufacturers and dealers have even today was well earned by more than a few bad apples back then. They stretched the definition of “satisfactory” and “reasonable” way beyond recognition.
Take the 1980 testimony of Dan Brochu of New London, Connecticut. He “paid $6,500 for an Oldsmobile Omega that turned out to be a ‘classic lemon.’ Water pooled inside, the electrical system failed, the paint peeled and the manual transmission slipped. The car was in the dealer’s shop for repairs 135 days over an 18-month period.”
Perversely, this sorry state of disrepair provided steady employment for lawyers representing car buyers and sellers.
And it helped spark the creation of one of the PIRGs’ earliest and most well-received projects: the “Small Claims Court Hotline.”
At PIRG chapters across the country, students — many of them preparing to be lawyers — staffed a telephone hotline to advise local victims of consumer ripoffs.
They told folks how to represent themselves in small claims court (the real-life, less histrionic version of Judge Judy-style justice), especially to get car dealers to fix their lemons.
One of the busiest hotlines was staffed by the ConnPIRG chapter at the University of Connecticut.
After years of providing one-on-one services to upset consumers, the students decided to do something more than advise. They set out to persuade their state government to end the “we’ll get it fixed eventually, trust us” merry-go-round.
They connected with state Rep. John Woodcock, an attorney who had heard the exasperations of countless car buyers. Their efforts were initially thwarted by lobbying from car manufacturers and dealers — among the most politically-connected businesses in the country. (Back then, most everyone bought their cars for much of their lifetimes from the same dealer, developing a personal relationship that dealers were quick to tap when they deemed necessary.)
But they made progress through a combination of compelling testimony from ripped-off consumers, rallies at the state capitol, intensive person-to-person lobbying, compromises on the bill’s language and persistence. The state’s car dealers ultimately agreed to support the bill, having been persuaded that the law would shift the burden for dealing with lemons from them to the manufacturers.
The American auto industry’s ham-handed lobbying also inadvertently helped the cause. They threatened to stop selling cars in Connecticut if the law were passed. Suffice it to say, nobody took seriously the idea that they would leave such a lucrative market to their international competitors.
Finally, on June 4, 1982, the bill’s advocates were rewarded by the governor’s signature on the nation’s first Lemon Law.
Among the law’s main features were a time limit of one year to fix any problems covered under a new car’s warranty and a “four strikes and you’re out” provision. The latter meant that, if four attempts to fix the car failed, the car manufacturer had to replace the vehicle or refund the entire original payment.
Thanks to Rep. Woodcock, the PIRGs and other consumer groups, word of the law’s passage and successful implementation sped quickly across the country. Soon thereafter, every state passed a lemon law for new cars. A few years later, most states extended their laws to included leased and used cars.
The coalition also beat back efforts by the auto industry to persuade the Federal Trade Commission to weaken the state laws and to rig the arbitration process used to settle disputed claims.
Now, how did the PIRGs’ Lemon Law campaigns accomplish the social change activist’s two rarely-spoken objectives?
For one, they put a lot of lawyers out of work. And they heavily reduced the complaints coming into the PIRGs’ Small Claims Court Hotlines, which is one reason our chapters don’t provide that service any more.
They also helped train and empower some of the country’s top consumer advocates, including Ed Mierzwinski, the Senior Director of U.S. PIRG’s Federal Consumer Program. (Ed helped lead the campaign for the Connecticut bill while serving as a ConnPIRG advocate.)
Secondly, the law is rarely used these days.
That’s because the American car industry finally realized that building and selling reliable cars was in their long-term best interest. That was partly in response to many of their customers fleeing to buy better-manufactured German and Japanese-built cars that started being widely available in the US in the 1980s. And it was partly due to wanting to avoid paying millions of dollars to buy back lemons or repair them quickly and thoroughly.
It didn’t hurt that they could lay off or reassign lawyers no longer needed to infinitely drag out lawsuits filed by upset customers.
So, the next time a year goes by without any problems with your newly-purchased vehicle, take a second to appreciate the absence of frustration and danger that you or your parents once considered par for the course.
And say a little thanks to the band of ConnPIRG students who worked their way out of a job by helping to pass the nation’s first Lemon Law.