On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L- 9618-98.
Before Judges Skillman, Wallace, Jr., and Wells.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
OPINION CORRECTED 03/21/02
Submitted October 10, 2001
The primary issue presented by this appeal is whether a cause of action for breach of a seller's agreement to repair any product defect that occurs during a warranty period accrues upon delivery of the product or only after the seller fails to perform the agreed repairs. We conclude that such a cause of action does not accrue until the seller fails to perform the required repair within a reasonable period of time. We reach the same conclusion with respect to a warranty claim under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.
On March 23, 1993, plaintiff purchased a new 1992 Dodge Spirit manufactured by defendant DaimlerChrysler Corporation. When he made this purchase, plaintiff elected to obtain a seven- year, seventy-thousand-mile "powertrain" warranty from defendant.
Plaintiff's claims arise out of a series of repairs and replacements of the "engine timing belt," which was one of the parts covered by the powertrain warranty. On December 16, 1993, after the car had been driven 16,408 miles, plaintiff had the timing belt replaced. More than three years later, on March 21, 1997, after the car had been driven 36,149 miles, plaintiff had the belt repaired. Plaintiff then had to have the belt replaced on May 16, 1997, January 5, 1998 and July 6, 1998. According to plaintiff, the timing belt again failed on July 31, 1998, causing the destruction of the "short block" of the engine, which the dealer took six months to repair. All of these timing belt repairs and replacements were purportedly performed by defendant in accordance with the seven-year, seventy-thousand-mile powertrain warranty obtained by plaintiff when he purchased the car.
On December 15, 1998, plaintiff brought this action against defendant for breach of the seven-year, seventy-thousand-mile powertrain warranty. Plaintiff also asserted claims under the Lemon Law, N.J.S.A. 56:12-29 to -49, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, 15 U.S.C.A. §§ 2301-2312, and the Consumer Fraud Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -106.
Defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff's complaint and supporting exhibits did not state a claim under the Lemon Law and that plaintiff's other claims were barred by the statute of limitations.*fn1 In his response, plaintiff indicated that he was not pursuing his claim under the Consumer Fraud Act.
The trial court granted defendant's motion as to plaintiff's other claims and dismissed the complaint. The court held that plaintiff's claim under the Lemon Law was barred because he had not given defendant notice and an opportunity to correct the alleged defect within the first 18,000 miles of operation. The court dismissed plaintiff's warranty and Magnuson-Moss Act claims as untimely because they were not brought within four years after delivery of the car. The court rejected plaintiff's argument that his warranty and Magnuson-Moss claims were timely because the seven-year, seventy-thousand-mile powertrain warranty was "a guarantee of performance" which defendant breached by failing to properly repair the timing belt.
Plaintiff appeals. We affirm the dismissal of plaintiff's Lemon Law claim, but reverse the dismissal of his warranty and Magnuson-Moss Act claims.
To assert a claim under the Lemon Law, a complaint must allege that (1) "[the plaintiff] report[ed] a nonconformity in [the] motor vehicle to the manufacturer or its dealer during the first 18,000 miles of operation or during the period of two years following the date of original delivery . . . , whichever is earlier," N.J.S.A. 56:12-31, and that (2) "the manufacturer or its dealer [was] unable to repair or correct [the] nonconformity within a reasonable time," N.J.S.A. 56:12-32(a). If a plaintiff can establish both of these preconditions for relief under the Lemon Law, he is entitled to return the vehicle to the manufacturer and to receive "a full refund of the purchase price . . ., less a reasonable allowance for vehicle use." N.J.S.A. 56:12-32(a).
Although plaintiff alleges that he brought his car to the dealer for repair of the engine timing belt when it had been driven less than 18,000 miles and within two years of delivery, he does not allege that the dealer failed to correct this condition within a reasonable time. To the contrary, he states that the dealer replaced the timing belt, and that he continued driving the car for three more years before he experienced any problems with the replacement belt. When that occurred, the car had been driven more than 36,000 miles and four years had elapsed since defendant delivered the car to plaintiff. Thus, the period of protection the Lemon Law provides a purchaser of a new automobile had expired at least two years earlier. Moreover, plaintiff did not offer any evidence that the replacement engine timing belt installed in his car in 1993 was defective or that the dealer improperly installed this part. Consequently, there is no basis for a claim under the Lemon Law, which only applies to an uncorrected nonconformity that is reported within the first 18,000 miles of operation or within two years after delivery of the car.
We also note that the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, which is responsible for administration of the Lemon Law, see DiVigenze v. Chrysler Corp., 345 N.J. Super. 314, 329-31 (App. Div. 2001), certif. denied, ___ N.J. ___ (2002), rejected a Lemon Law claim under facts similar to this case, pointing out that the law does not provide "continuous protection to car buyers" but instead applies only to defects identified and reported within the statutorily specified period. Fowler- Fernandez v. Volkswagon United States, Inc., 96 N.J.A.R. 2d (CMA) 190 (1996). This interpretation of the statute by the agency charged with responsibility for its administration is entitled to substantial deference, Earl ...