I hear from used car buyers who discover something wrong with their car after they had made the purchase. But what upsets them is that the manufacturer “knows” about the problem and is doing nothing about it. Sorry, but this one’s your problem most of the time - not theirs.

A typical example would look like this: You buy a used car that is out of warranty. You inspected it, test drove it, and everything checked out. You bought it and a short while later, something went catastrophically wrong. Let’s say it’s a Chevrolet Impala which started shifting erratically. You take it to your trusted mechanic who tells you that the transmission pressure control solenoid is probably bad. He believes this to be true because he has seen it before. It is a common problem with this car, he tells you.

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Before you cough up the thousand or so dollars it will cost to repair, you do some research using the newfangled phone your grandkids got you for Christmas. You check the NHTSA website to see what our tax dollars have done on this matter. Turns out there are no recalls for this problem. But a quick search of the internet turns up an avalanche of complaints. It seems everyone knows about this problem - that you are just now familiarizing yourself with. General Motors obviously knows about this problem.

But since it is not considered to be one of safety, the defect is not subject to a recall. This means that GM will not be picking up the repair bill on this. And obviously, your car is so far out of warranty they are under no legal obligation to help you.

“But GM knows about the problem!”

I hear this refrain all the time. But mere knowledge of a defect does not create warranty liability. If might create liability for a SELLER who knows a car suffers from a problem and does not disclose that fact to the buyer. But in the scenario I described above, the problem manifested itself after the purchase. The seller could not have known about the problem which had not appeared yet.

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And of course, if the known defect is one of a safety-related problem - think GM and its Death By Ignition Switch fiasco - then there might be a Federal mandate for a recall. Still, your slippery transmission is a far cry from a car which has a suspect steering system that might fail, or one with airbags which might deploy unexpectedly.

This is one of those situations where I tell you that your answer is to have avoided this in the first place. When car shopping, study what you can about the make and model you are looking at. Not just prices, but what kinds of problems are the cars known for. You’d be amazed at how many people I’ve met who went car shopping by price. “I was looking for a car in this price range and I found this.” Well, when you found it, you should have googled the make/model/year for known problems before you did anything else. The fact that used Suzukis still sell is proof that people openly ignore this rule.

Oh, and you know how that internet attorney is always telling you to get your used vehicle inspected by a mechanic before you buy it? This is another reason that advice is so good: The mechanic might recognize the car as one with a troubling repair record. Every mechanic I’ve spoken with seems to remember the cars he or she has worked on - particularly the ones which come in over and over again with the same problems.

What does one do with a car that has a known defect? Check NHTSA and see if it is subject to a recall. If so, then you might get a free fix.

But if it is merely an expensive transmission or engine repair that the manufacturer knows about - and not a question of safety - just chalk it up to an expensive learning experience and never let it happen again.

Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto

Hear my podcast on iTunes: Lehto’s Law

Photo credit Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr

Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.

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