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Putting the squeeze on carmakers who sell 'lemons'

Not all lemons grow on trees. Some are not even fruit, as Elizabeth Boone of Lemon Grove, Calif., found out through a sour experience she had with a 1982 American-made car.

''Whenever I hit the brakes I skidded sideways. It was like driving on glass, especially when it was raining and the pavement was wet,'' she recalls in narrating her automotive tale of woe. But her story had a happy ending, which she credits in large part to a new state consumer protection statute.

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Such ''lemon laws,'' first enacted in Connecticut 15 months ago and now on the books in 16 states, permit aggrieved new car buyers to get their money back (or a replacement vehicle) when attempts to repair major defects fail or are prolonged.

In order for an owner to take advantage of the law, the car dealer or manufacturer must have made at least four attempts to correct the defect. Or an owner can claim protection if the vehicle has been in the shop for various repairs for a total of 30 days or more during the warranty period.

In Mrs. Boone's case, the new auto she and her husband bought last September was not only returned several times to have the brake-locking problem cleared up , but once ''they had it for five weeks,'' she says.

Although the car had been purchased prior to last Jan. 1, when the California lemon law went into effect, Mrs. Boone says the statute's definition of a lemon car and her threats of litigation probably helped prod the San Diego car dealer into giving her money back.

In the past eight months, 14 states have adopted lemon laws, and legislation in a 15th - Illinois - is awaiting action by the governor. Proposals are expected to be taken up in at least three other states - Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin - during the next few weeks.

In addition, federal lemon-law legislation, believed to be the first of its kind, was filed in Congress Aug. 4. That proposal, sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California, is cast in the mold of the New York law, which is believed to be the toughest anywhere. It cleared the Senate 55 to 1.

The bill would provide lemon-law coverage for up to 18,000 miles or two years , whichever is least, instead of the usual warranty period of 12,000 miles or one year.

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In the past, the burden of proving that a car was a ''lemon'' was more or less on the buyer. The new laws require the dealer to show that the vehicle is not a lemon.

Experiences like Mrs. Boone's may not be very common. But lemon-law boosters, including Connecticut state Rep. John Woodcock, who successfully sponsored the first of these measures, say they are convinced they are on the right path.

Carmakers maintain, however, that ''repair-replace'' statutes, as they call them, are not needed. They say such laws tend to encourage suits and ''mislead'' car buyers into thinking they have added protection.

Carmakers ''are in business to satisfy customers, not to displease them,'' says Charles Spilman, director of state relations for the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.

He points out that those he represents, along with other automakers, already have in place a binding arbitration process for handling complaints from new-car buyers.

If dissatisfied with the outcome of such consumer arbitration, the unhappy customer still can bring suit, even without a lemon law, Mr. Spilman emphasizes. He holds that the current wave of legislation ''simply puts another layer of government between the customer and restitution.''

Spilman and other lemon-law critics discount the idea as not all that new, noting that as far back as 1972 this type legislation was filed in Hawaii. The 1982 Connecticut statute was patterned after a proposal that California consumer activists until then had tried unsuccessfully to get on the books.

Alice Cantwell, the Ford Motor Company's Northeast regional manager for government relations, says she hopes to convince Massachusetts lawmakers to modify pending legislation ''along more realistic lines.''

She is particularly displeased with a provision in the measure which would have half the members of an automaker's customer arbitration panel appointed by the commonwealth's secretary of consumer affairs.

Although the Connecticut lemon law has been in effect since only last October , he says he feels ''it is having a positive impact'' and estimates it has resulted in the replacement of ''at least 20 lemon cars.''

In California, where a similar law has been operative for only eight months, Rosemary Shahan-Dunlap, one of its staunchest backers, reports that several members of her consumer advocacy group have ''have found it helpful'' in getting positive response to their vehicle-defect complaints.

Most of the momentum for such statutes has come from local consumer activists , with strong encouragement from the Center for Auto Safety, which is based in Washington, D.C., and has ties to consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Besides Connecticut and California, states with lemon laws already in effect or scheduled to become operative shortly are Delaware, Florida, Maine, Minnesota , Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.

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