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special to the national law journal Vincent megna sr. bought a new Cadillac DeVille for $20,000 at a Milwaukee-area dealership in 1997. Within a year it began having engine problems. After more than three years of complaining to the dealership, he sued General Motors Corp. Last fall, a jury awarded him $10,000 in damages. The judge in the case surprised everyone recently when he awarded Megna’s lawyer-his son, Vincent P. Megna Jr.-$108,000 in attorney fees in the case. Megna v. GM and Crest Cadillac, No. 01-CV-1664 (Waukesha Co., Wis., Cir. Ct., Judge Lee Dreyfus Jr.). Megna didn’t win under Wisconsin’s so-called lemon law. He sued under a federal law-the Magnuson-Moss Federal Warranty Act. And while there are no hard numbers, lawyers and legal experts say an increasing number of attorneys around the country are finding out about the 33-year-old law and using it to win cases and collect bigger legal fees. “I’d definitely encourage other lawyers to look at Magnuson-Moss,” said Megna Jr. of Waukesha, Wis.’ Jastroch & LaBarge. “It allows you to sue for relatively small amounts, like $5,000 and $10,000, and still get attorney fees, so we don’t have to turn down consumers with small cases like my father’s. If companies know they will have to pay attorney fees, they will settle for something fair to consumers long before trial.” GM spokeswoman Brenda Rios called the fee award excessive and said the company hadn’t decided whether to appeal. “This case is an example of where the plaintiff’s attorney was the big winner,” she said. “GM offered to settle the case for more than the $10,000 the jury awarded-about $20,000-but that would have included legal fees.” In addition, GM is paying its own outside law firm $82,000 in fees in the case. Neither of GM’s attorneys, C. Paul Carver and Roshan N. Rajkumar of Bowman and Brooke in Minneapolis, returned calls seeking comment. The Magnuson-Moss Act was designed to prevent manufacturers from drafting grossly unfair consumer warranties and to make it economically viable for consumers to bring warranty suits by providing for the award of attorney fees, according to the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety in Washington. Many states built on the act by later passing their own lemon laws. Clarence M. Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, said that after the law’s 1975 passage, it was ignored by many attorneys handling lemon law cases, while others just never knew about it. The law has two key provisions: It covers full warranty periods during which repairs must be made within a “reasonable time,” and it provides judges with discretionary power to award legal fees. At the time it was passed, warranties on products like cars were very limited. Attorneys note increase Steven Toth, an attorney with Consumer Legal Services in Detroit, said his firm has handled more than 13,000 lemon law cases in seven states and is seeing many more cases being brought under Magnuson-Moss. Sometimes, he said, the cases are being “piggybacked” with suits under state laws, because the federal law “provides good damages for consumers and good fees for lawyers.” Stephen E. Berken, a solo practitioner in Denver who primarily handles lemon law cases, confirms that Magnuson-Moss cases are becoming much more common. He brings suit for his own clients under the federal law because Colorado’s lemon law states that the complainant, if he or she loses, is responsible for the other side’s legal costs. In the roughly 150 cases he has filed, Berken says, the auto manufacturers have initially “put on huge defenses.” But 95% settled because the car company knows that if it goes to trial under Magnuson-Moss “you can end up adding $20,000 or more for legal fees.” Fisk’s e-mail address is

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