The limits of what constitutes a “comparable” replacement vehicle under Wisconsin’s Lemon Law have been put to the test, and the Court of Appeals recently rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to strike a jury’s finding that a 2012 Blue Ford Escape was a “comparable” replacement for a 2010 Red Ford Escape. See Porter v. Ford Motor Company, 2014AP975. Somewhat ironically, the appeals court relied heavily on Marquez v. Mercedes-Benz, USA, 2012 WI 57—a case in which the prevailing party was represented by the same attorneys who apparently sought to avoid its holding in representing the unsuccessful plaintiff-appellants in Porter v. Ford Motor Company.
In Porter, the Court of Appeals was asked to review the circuit court’s denial of motions after verdict regarding Ford’s allegedly “inconsistent defenses” and the jury’s decision about the color of the replacement vehicle. By way of background, the Porters purchased a 2010 Ford Escape with a red exterior and beige interior. Apparently, the Porters claimed that they would not have purchased a vehicle that was not red with a beige interior and explained that they “chose the red exterior because Mrs. Porter’s first car as a teenager was red” and “they chose the light-colored interior because dark interiors made Mr. Porter feel ‘very enclosed.’” ¶3.
After bringing the vehicle in for repairs several times between 2010 and 2012, the Porters sent Ford a Lemon Law notice under Wis. Stat. § 218.0171 seeking a comparable vehicle. Ford offered the Porters a 2012 Ford Escape but the Porters refused to accept the vehicle because it was blue with a dark interior. Instead of taking the brand new replacement vehicle, they sued Ford.
The case made it before a jury, which determined that although the 2010 Escape was a “lemon,” Ford complied with its duties under the Lemon Law when it provided the Porters with a comparable replacement. The jury’s verdict did not sit well with the Porters, who brought motions after verdict in which they argued that “a blue vehicle with a dark charcoal interior cannot be comparable to a red vehicle with a beige interior as a matter of law.” ¶9 (emphasis added). The Porters also argued that Ford should not have been allowed to argue both that the vehicle was not a lemon and that even if it was, Ford satisfied its obligations under the law. The circuit court denied these motions, and the Porters appealed. Not surprisingly, it appears that one of the motives for the appeal was to obtain a ruling that would permit them to recover their attorney’s fees under the statute. See ¶23.
The Court of Appeals explained that based on the language of the statutes, § 218.0171(1)-(2), “a successful Lemon Law claim must prove, first, that the vehicle at issue was a ‘lemon,’ and, second, that the manufacturer failed to comply with the law’s provisions.” Thus, Ford’s arguments were hardly inconsistent—it raised defenses to both elements of claim. ¶19.
Just because a consumer is required to choose between a replacement or a refund does not mean that a manufacturer must in turn choose between arguing that a car is not a lemon or that, even if it is a lemon, that it did provide a comparable replacement for it.
The Porters also argued that, in essence, the jury’s role should have ended once it determined that the 2010 vehicle was a lemon. The Porters asserted that once that finding was made, the Porters were the prevailing party and the rest of the statutory language should just be ignored. According to the Porters, the verdict question regarding whether the 2012 vehicle was comparable “was a surplus question that was irrelevant under the law.” ¶23. The Court of Appeals did not mince words: “The Porters are wrong.” ¶24. Quoting at length from the Marquez decision, the court pointed out that “the Lemon Law was not created to punish manufacturers, but to get consumers back on the road in quality cars.” ¶25, citing Marquez, 2012 WI 57 at ¶29.