How a Lemon lawsuit works in Michigan
A Lemon Law case begins with attorney review and analysis of all relevant documents relating to the sale/lease and repair of your vehicle. Lemon Law cases can be complicated and auto manufacturers and dealers will try to utilize a variety of defenses and strategies to prevent or reduce your success and avoid liability. (See common manufacturer defenses here).
It is important to provide your attorney with all documentation relating to your case, including:
- Purchase/Lease agreement
- Finance agreement, if vehicle is purchased
- Application for Title (RD-108 form)
- Odometer disclosure statement
- Written communication (e.g. letters, texts, and emails to and from dealer and manufacturer)
- Your timeline of repairs
- Registration and/or Title
- Receipts/documentation for after-market items or extended warranty
- Any notes you've taken at any time regarding the vehicle
- Maintenance history if performed by third-parties (e.g. oil changes, tires, etc.)
- Accident history/insurance claims
- Receipts/documentation for towing or rental fees
- Provide the number of days that the vehicle was out of service
- Any other documents of any nature you received from any service department
Formal legal action begins when your lawyer files a complaint with the court against the defendants (the auto manufacturer and usually the selling dealer). Your lawyer will then “serve” the complaint on the defendants, usually by certified mail. Defendants are required to file a response to the complaint with the court, (the “answer”) within 21 days if served in person, and 28 days if served by certified mailing. On occasion the defendants may request a short extension of time to answer the complaint that is routinely granted.
The complaint identifies the parties involved in the case and describes the nature of the plaintiff's allegations including the vehicle defects and the various claims for damages. Usually the complaint will have multiple claims or “causes of action” including the Michigan Lemon Law, breach of warranty and violation of the federal Magnson-Moss Warranty Act.
Answer to Complaint
The defendant(s) respond to the complaint by filing a written answer in the same court. The answer generally contains mostly denials of the allegations in the complaint. At this early juncture in the litigation, defendants often “lack knowledge” regarding the allegations until further information is discovered.
In virtually every case, your attorney will engage in settlement negotiations early in the legal process. The negotiations sometimes begin before the filing of a complaint. During this period of time you may be offered a settlement proposal. You will confer with your lawyer to determine whether any settlement offer is acceptable. Settlement negotiations may continue all the way to the trial date.
After the Answer is filed, the court usually permits “discovery.” In Michigan, most Circuit Courts, the judge usually issues a Scheduling Order, permitting discovery for up to 6 months. Discovery may include asking questions of parties and witnesses through written questions (interrogatories) or through oral questions under oath (depositions). It may also involve ”requests to admit” certain information and obtaining documents through a “request for production of documents.” Finally, the defendants will be permitted to inspect your vehicle.
If the parties reach a settlement, the defendants will require plaintiff to sign a “release agreement” or “settlement agreement” that includes various terms that the plaintiff must accept in exchange for receiving the settlement. If you agree to settle the case, the lawsuit will be dismissed.
The time it takes to resolve a Lemon Law case depends many factors including, but not limited to:
- The strength of your case
- How aggressive the defendants are and their willingness to compromise
- What court the lawsuit is filed in
- The judge assigned to the case
- Your lawyer's skill and reputation
- Your position and your willingness to compromise
Keep in mind that trial dates for a Lemon Law case are set by the court. The court will generally issue a "scheduling order" within 60 days of the filing date. Timing and scheduling of discovery and other important dates differ between courts and many courts are backlogged with cases. As a result, most cases will not have a scheduled trial date for at least one year from the date the case is filed.
The manufacturer will have a qualified expert or experts prepared to testify in court. All defendants have ample access to certified mechanics and engineers to support their defense. You will also have the opportunity to hire an expert to inspect your vehicle and bolster your case. In most cases, experts are not needed. However, your lawyer should keep apprised of the possibility and know when an expert may be required.
Your vehicle is evidence
Your vehicle is the most important evidence in your Lemon Law case. You cannot sell or trade your vehicle while your case is pending because your best evidence will be gone. Moreover, if your vehicle is totaled in an accident or repossessed during litigation, your evidence is gone. In short, you cannot win your Lemon Law case if the vehicle is not in your possession and available for inspection.
Before trial, each side may use motions to ask the court to rule or act. Motions usually pertain to law or facts in the case, but sometimes they seek clarification or resolution of procedural disputes between or among the sides. Some motions, such as the motion for summary disposition, where a party requests the court to dismiss part or all of the case and resolve matters without trial. Other motions may request the court to order one side or the other to produce documents or to exclude evidence from trial.
Prior to trial, most cases in Michigan are submitted to case evaluation. This is an informal hearing in front of 3 attorneys hired by the court to attempt to resolve your case prior to trial. The parties will prepare a written brief prior to the case evaluation so that the 3 case evaluators understand the factual and legal issues. Then, on a date scheduled by the court, there will be an informal hearing at the court where the lawyers are permitted 10 or 15 minutes to argue the case.
At the end of the case evaluation, on the same day, the 3 evaluators will issue a written decision that includes only a specific amount of damages that the parties are entitled to. Case evaluators are not permitted to order a repurchase of your vehicle. They can only put a monetary value on the case. The parties then have 28 days to either “accept” or “reject” the evaluation amount. If all parties accept the evaluation amount, the case is concluded for that amount. If either party rejects the evaluation amount, the case is not settled and will be scheduled for trial.
Case Evaluation Costs
If a party has rejected an evaluation and the action proceeds to verdict, that party must pay the opposing party's actual costs unless the verdict is more favorable to the rejecting party than the case evaluation. the verdict is considered more favorable to a defendant if it is more than 10 percent below the evaluation, and is considered more favorable to the plaintiff if it is more than 10 percent above the evaluation.
In other words, if the case evaluation is $10,000, you (plaintiff) will need to obtain a trial verdict of at least $11,000 to avoid paying the defendants costs in the case. The defendant would need to obtain a trial verdict of less than $9,000 to avoid paying plaintiffs costs in the case. Forcing parties to potentially pay costs if they reject the case evaluation number was devised by the courts to create more settlements and avoid trials.
If your case is not resolved after case evaluation, it will be scheduled for trial.