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'Lemon' laws: they're sweet for consumer, sour for carmaker

California, the nation's leading lemon-growing state, is about to put the squeeze on another sort of lemon - defective new cars.

Under a new law effective Jan. 1, Californians who buy autos with major mechanical or structural problems that cannot be eliminated - even after repeated trips to the mechanic - could find it easier to get a replacement car or a refund.

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The ''lemon'' statute, similar to a consumer protection measure put on the books in Connecticut last spring, sets conditions for determining whether the warranty has been breached and prescribes a process for settling a grievance with the carmaker.

Although it will be several months before the fruits of the new law are visible, its boosters are optimistic it will prove a boon to consumer protection.

''At least one in every 1,000 cars sold in the United States each year is a lemon, and that is a conservative estimate,'' contends Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety based in Washington, D.C.

Legislation similar to the California and Connecticut measures has been filed or is being considered for submission to 1983 legislatures in at least 15 states - Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Washington.

While unwilling to speculate where prospects for passage might be brightest, Mr. Ditlow says that ''within the next five years a majority of the states will have lemon laws.'' He estimates between 5,000 and 10,000 defective new cars, domestic and foreign-made, are sold in the US each year.

His and other consumer-advocacy groups from the frost belt to the Sunbelt view such statutes as essential in influencing, if not forcing, settlement of customer-manufacturer disagreements over the fitness of warranty-covered autos.

Lemon law proponents maintain the Consumer Products Safety Act of 1975 was intended to afford that type of protection to new-car buyers (along with consumers of other products), but they say it has not worked out that way.

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Since attempts to amend that measure have failed, attention has turned to the states. It took California three years to get its lemon law approved, says a spokesman for assemblyman Sally Tanner, who sponsored the bill.

Critics of the law say car buyers can be unreasonable in their demands and there is no way to satisfy them. Automakers and car dealers are vigorously opposed to such measures, viewing them as unnecessary at best. ''There are other remedies already available'' to a car buyer who has complaints, explains Charles L. Spilman of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association (MVMA).

He explains that all American carmakers and most foreign auto manufacturers have some process for resolving disputes, usually through an AUTOCAP (Automotive Consumer Action Panel) or with the Better Business Bureaus.

The auto industry lobbied hard but unsuccessfully against passage of the Connecticut law, which went into effect Oct. 1, and the California statute. And Mr. Spilman makes it clear that his group, which represents the domestic auto industry, is mapping plans for resisting legislative efforts in other states. The MVMA is shaping its strategy and working on a draft statement to persuade legislators a lemon law is not needed, he says.

For a vehicle to qualify as a lemon in California or Connecticut, it must have been back to the dealer for the same major problem at least four times or been in the repair shop at least 30 days during the manufacturer's warranty period. Then the aggrieved car owner must participate in a manufacturer-sponsored arbitration process, such as AUTOCAP. The outcome of such proceedings are nonbinding on the owner. If dissatisfied with the settlement, he or she can file suit to force either a refund or delivery of a replacement car.

In such legal proceedings, it is the carmaker's responsibility to prove that the vehicle does not have a persistent and uncorrectable defect.

From early experience with the Connecticut law, its backers suggest there will be a minimum of litigation.

''The measure of success of our law will not be in the number of suits but in the number of satisfied car owners,'' emphasizes state Rep. John J. Woodcock, sponser of the Connecticut law.

He says he sees ''a significant change in attitude of the manufacturers in their desire to work with customers.'' Mr. Woodcock says he doubts there will be many claims in his state until spring. The law applies only to new cars purchased after Oct. 1.

Awaiting lawmaker attention in neighboring Massachusetts are two ''lemon car'' proposals, one filed by the state's outgoing consumer affairs secretary, Eileen Schell, and the other by the Ralph Nader-affiliated MassPIRG (Public Interest Research Group).

The latter would clear the way for a car owner to file suit if the major defect in his new vehicle could not be repaired after three trips back to the dealer or if the auto was out of service for 20 days during the warranty period. The dissatisfied owner also must notify the manufacturer of the problem and of his intent to sue. In addition, there would be a period of negotiation with the dealer before heading into court, explains MassPIRG's Joel Ario.

Massachusetts, unlike Connecticut, is among several states with a lemon law on the books for used cars.

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