What is a Civil Penalty and How Do I Get One from a Manufacturer?

There are generally two ways to seek a civil penalty when using the California Lemon Law. The first way is the easiest way. If you believe that your vehicle is a lemon and you contact the automobile manufacturer directly to seek a lemon law repurchase and the automobile manufacturer denies your request, once your attorney files a lawsuit against the automobile manufacturer on your behalf, your attorney can argue that you are entitled to a civil penalty because the automobile manufacturer initially “willfully” failed to comply with your repurchase request when they should have agreed to assist you with a repurchase or a replacement. The civil penalty provision of the California Lemon Law can be found at California Civil Code §1794(c) and this code section states as follows:

“If the buyer establishes that the failure to comply was willful, the judgment may include, in addition to the amounts recovered, a civil penalty which shall not exceed two times the amount of actual damages.”

This means that if you win a repurchase on your $50,000.00 vehicle, the jury has the discretion to award up to an extra $100,000.00 in civil penalty money to punish the automobile manufacturer for not doing the right thing when they had the chance.

The second way to seek a civil penalty is more difficult and occurs when you have not sought a repurchase or a replacement from the manufacturer directly prior to seeking legal assistance. If your attorney sends the manufacturer a written demand letter, this has the same effect as if you had made the demand yourself prior to bringing a lawsuit. However, if your attorney files suit without sending a written demand letter to the automobile manufacturer, your attorney will have to establish through the litigation process that the automobile manufacturer has “willfully” failed to comply with your repurchase request by prolonging the litigation, continually failing to repurchase your vehicle throughout litigation, and ultimately, going to trial. It typically takes between one and two years to get a lemon law case to trial, so arguing that the automobile manufacturer “willfully” failed to repurchase your vehicle during one to two years of litigation, while more difficult, is not impossible.

Either way you seek a civil penalty, it is ultimately up to the jury whether or not to award the penalty. You may go all the way through trial, win the trial, have the jury find in your favor, but then decline to award a civil penalty. The civil penalty is certainly nice to obtain, but it is never guaranteed.

If you think that your vehicle may be a lemon, it is best to call a lemon law attorney right away. You can call the 800 number in your owner’s manual to ask the manufacturer for help, but chances are the manufacturer will not assist you. In our experience, our clients that have called the manufacturer directly are often told that they do not have a lemon law case but they are welcome to continue bringing their car in for warranty repairs and their warranty will always be honored. Then, after we get involved, their vehicles are repurchased and/or replaced.

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Debbie Horowitz

Deborah L. Horowitz, an attorney who has been licensed in California to practice law for over 15 years, has dedicated her entire legal career to protecting consumer rights. She has settled over 8,000 lemon law cases and achieved excellent results for her clients.