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Connecticut car buyers get new protection from lemons

Connecticut is about to put the squeeze on lemons -- not the fruit, but the cars. And California soon may be doing it, too.

The Connecticut bill, expected to be signed within a week by Gov. William A. O'Neill, gives new-car buyers an easier means of getting replacements or refunds if their vehicles have substantial defects.

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A similar proposal in California has passed the state General Assembly and is headed for a Senate hearing in the coming weeks, although a specific date has not yet been set and prospects for passage are uncertain.

The Connecticut measure, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, specifically places responsibility for customer satisfaction on the car maker, who if sued by new-car buyers must prove the car is not defective.

But in order for the buyer to file suit, the vehicle in question must be no more than a year old, or still within its warranty period, whichever is less.

The aggrieved car owner also must either give the automaker four tries at correcting the defect or the owner must be without the use of the vehicle for at least 30 days within the period covered.

The intent is not to impose an undue hardship on carmakers but ''to improve communications with the dissatisfied customer and encourage greater responsiveness,'' explains State Rep. John J. Woodcock, the measure's sponsor.

''We want to have disputes resolved short of court proceedings,'' the freshman lawmaker emphasizes, adding it is to the advantage of all concerned having problems with new cars taken care of quickly.

Critics of the legislation insist that instances of lingering disputes between carmakers and vehicle purchasers over so-called lemons are rare.

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Frederick Brasius, president of the Connecticut Automotive Trade Association, argues that the measure was rushed through without sufficient consideration.

''It was an emotional issue and it fails to take into consideration that some car buyers are unreasonable in their demands and there is no way they can be satisfied,'' he asserts.

Accurate statistics as to how many faulty new cars might be on American highways are hard to come by. But Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety says his consumer organization receives about 1,000 complaints a year involving serious irreparable defects in new cars. Based on this he estimates about 10,000 such vehicles are sold in the United States annually.

The Woodcock legislation passed on a 131-to-4 vote in the state House April 30 after earlier making it through the Senate 36 to 0, despite industry opposition.

Leaders of the Connecticut Automotive Trade Association, which represents most of the state's 430 new car dealers, have been concerned that their members might be named as co-defendants with manufacturers in car defect litigation.

Enactment of the Woodcock measure was aided by inclusion of a requirement that if the automaker has a consumer arbitration program, in accordance with the Magnuson-Moss (Consumer Products Safety Commission) Act of 1975, the owner of a defective car must first exhaust that course of action before filing suit.

So far only one vehicle manufacturer has such an arbitrtation arrangement, Woodcock notes. His legislation, he suggests, might induce other car firms to set up arbitration structures. A similar amendment may be offered to help push through the California legislation.

Proposals like Woodcock's also are under consideration in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Rhode Island.

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