Ask a Maritime Attorney: How do I handle the warranty on my new boat?

Question:

I am in the process of buying a new boat. This is my first boat and I am concerned about the warranty. What is generally covered, and how long is a typical warranty? What are the legal requirements? How are warranty claims handled?

 

Answer:

Boat warranties vary considerably between manufacturers and whether you are buying a new boat or a used boat it’s a good idea to spend some time reading the fine print.

Unlike a car warranty, the warranty for your boat will generally cover only the components that the manufacturer was directly responsible for building and installing. In many cases this will be limited to the structural integrity of the hull and deck and certain parts that are actually manufactured by the boat builder. Important equipment such as engines and generators are likely to be covered separately by the manufacturers of those items. Similarly, marine electronics, stoves, propellers, and almost everything else that is important to the operation of a boat will be covered separately.

The warranty documents will answer a lot of important questions, including (1) what is covered by the warranty (or warranties)?  (2)  What is the time period of the warranty coverage?  (3) What are the claims procedures?  And (4) may the warranty be transferred from the original owner to a subsequent owner?

State and Federal consumer protection laws require manufacturers and dealers to process claims promptly and in good faith. However, procedures for making a warranty claim will differ between manufacturers, and there are generally no legal minimum standards for the items that must be covered by warranty. The warranty is basically viewed as a marketing feature which should be considered by a prospective purchaser when evaluating the other features of the boat.

Assuming a particular failure is covered, the claim process under a boat warranty may nonetheless be very frustrating.  Most of us are familiar with the “Lemon Law” that protects the buyer of a new car from warranty frustration, but the Lemon Law does not protect the buyer of a boat.

As the buyer of a “consumer good,” a boat buyer in California is protected by a body of law known as the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (California Civil Code sec. 1790). The Song-Beverly Act enforces manufacturer’s warranties on all consumer goods sold in California.  It covers everything from computers to refrigerators, and it does cover the purchase of a new boat. Under this law, a manufacturer who fails to fix a problem covered by a warranty after a “reasonable number of attempts,” must either replace the product or reimburse the buyer for the purchase price, less the amount “directly attributable to use by the buyer” prior to the discovery of the problem (depreciation). Failure to comply with the law will subject the manufacturer to strict penalties.

The Song-Beverly Act has one glaring problem for the buyer of a new boat: It fails to consider that a boat is a complicated machine, with a long list of complex systems that may be subject to failure. A manufacturer will be in compliance with the Song-Beverly Act if it repairs each of those failed systems within a “reasonable time,” notwithstanding that it may have deprived the owner of the use of the boat for many months of accumulated down time during the repairs, and notwithstanding that there is no definition for what amounts to a “reasonable time.”  Song-Beverly may work fine for a toaster or a television, but it does not adequately protect the buyer of a new boat.

In contrast, new car buyers are in a much better position. California’s “Lemon Law” is set forth in the Tanner Consumer Protection Act (Civil Code sec. 1793.22), but the scope of the law is expressly limited to “new motor vehicles.” The Tanner Act offers a number of protections to the buyer of a new car, including a requirement that the manufacturer replace the car or refund the purchase price if, during the first 18 months or 18,000 miles, the car is out of service due to warranty repairs for a cumulative total of more than 30 calendar days. Further, under the Tanner Act the new car buyer is entitled to a refund of the full purchase price without any deduction for depreciation.

Most of the 50 states have some sort of “lemon law” protection, and the law is almost always limited to buyers of new cars. Exceptions may exist, however, and the best approach for a boat owner who is either concerned about the warranty prior to buying the boat or concerned with a continuing problem is to contact an experienced attorney for advice on their particular case.

 

 

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

 

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com,  or via email at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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