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Lemon Aid 

Attorney/author Vince Megna steers his Corvette into town with a few words about Louisiana's "terrible" lemon laws.

Vince Megna discovered his calling by accident. Before the Wisconsin-based attorney began his wildly successful fight for justice against lemon cars and the machinations of the auto industry, he was an itinerant musician.

That life brought Megna and his guitar to California, where at age 19 he was rear-ended and suffered a whiplash injury. He procured the services of "a terrible attorney," and his claim was forced into arbitration. Eventually, Megna was forced to cover part of his medical bills -- and pay his $300, because the decision awarded by the arbitrator wasn't enough to cover his legal expenses. "At that point, I thought, 'Maybe this music thing isn't all it's cracked up to be," Megna says by phone last week from Savannah, Ga., where he's on tour promoting his recent book Bring on Goliath: Lemon Law Justice in America. "I was on the road as a musician, and I realized I could help people more by doing this."

Megna started his new career with a law degree from Marquette University Law School. In his 30 years as an attorney, he has spent the past 14 specializing in lemon law cases. He has won more than 99 percent of his 1,000 lemon law cases, a string of victories highlighted by 400-0 record against General Motors -- and once won from GM a $125,000 settlement for a $196 repair. During that stretch, Megna says, he has also owned five consecutive lemons.

"Lemon laws are the laws that allow you to return a car to the manufacturer," Megna says of the laws that are on the books, offering varying degrees of protection and enforcement, in all 50 states. "It grants a refund or replacement if you are having problems with your car and meet the criteria of each state. The laws came into effect to stop the manufacturers from screwing the customers. People were getting no place petitioning the manufacturers on their own, and were just stuck with their problems."

In 1975, the federal Magnuson-Moss Law was enacted to protect consumers against lemon cars, the first of its kind. "The Magnuson-Moss Law was supposed to be the lemon law, a uniform law that would protect people that buy bad products. But, it proved to be ineffective, it was confusing and tricky."

Starting in 1982, states began passing lemon laws for new cars. Of Louisiana's legal protection against lemons, Megna says: "It's absolutely terrible." His main sticking point is the baseline requirement that a car purchased within the last two years must be out-of-service (in the shop or broken down at home) for 90 days. In just about all other states, the out-of-service limit is just 30 days, with one other state holding the level at 45 days.

However, Louisiana, like most states, has a provision that if a new car is taken in for repair for the same problem four times within two years of purchase, it qualifies as a lemon. Also, Louisiana allows plaintiffs in lemon law cases to recover their legal fees -- which nine states don't allow. Megna says this propels people to proceed in cases against car manufacturers without fear of losing money to attorneys in the process. "Overall, though, I rate Louisiana pretty low," Megna says.

In Bring on Goliath, Megna manages to turn what could be confusing, sleep-inducing legalese into breezy anecdote, telling the stories of clients he's helped, and in the process, his own fascinating story. The prologue finds Megna enjoying a Diet Coke in his office around 10 a.m., per his daily ritual, when he peruses an issue of National Law Journal, a trade publication. Its front page featured a picture of James A. Brown, assistant general counsel for Ford Motor Company, posing in front of a blue Mustang convertible. The caption read, "Lean, Mean Litigation Machine -- Ford Thinks It Has A Better Idea: Hardball." Within was a quote from Brown: "I don't give a shit if they take it or not. If the plaintiff doesn't settle, it doesn't matter to us. We tell them, 'We're coming after you.'"

That's when Megna says Ford's attitude changed "from 'Screw You' to 'F--k You.'" While jabs at what he calls the Almighty Industry fill his pages, Megna is a Corvette aficionado, having owned several of the prized Chevrolets. Megna says he buys only American-made cars, and concedes that lawsuits are rarely filed against imports -- "These foreign manufacturers, they simply make better cars" -- but he will stick with his Corvette. In fact, on his 10,000-mile book tour, he's currently driving the yellow model that appears on the cover of his book -- despite the fact that his Corvette was recalled, as were all 1997-2004 models, because of an electronic glitch causing the steering to lock up.

"Yeah, I guess there is some irony," Megna says of his passion for Corvettes. "But, I don't know ... I just really love my car."

click to enlarge Vince Megna was a touring musician when a whiplash - injury and a "terrible attorney" propelled him into a legal - career.
  • Vince Megna was a touring musician when a whiplash injury and a "terrible attorney" propelled him into a legal career.
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