Pa. Superior Court panel tosses law firm's appeal in Lemon Law case, rules firm not entitled to attorneys' fees

By Jon Campisi | Jul 18, 2013

A Pennsylvania Superior Court panel has ruled against a law firm in its appeal of a

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge’s decision to grant summary judgment to a handful of vehicle manufacturers who were sued by the firm on behalf of vehicle purchasers seeking redress under the state’s Lemon Law.

Kimmel & Silverman P.C. had appealed the trial court’s July 13, 2012, ruling in favor of Volkswagen Group of America Inc., Nissan North America Inc., Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and Kia Motors America Inc., in which the vehicle companies sought summary judgment in a variety of civil actions filed by the law firm.

Kimmel & Silverman had been seeking legal fees associated with its representation of 17 automobile purchasers who filed separate civil claims against the car makers alleging violations of the Pennsylvania Automobile Lemon Law, according to background information on the case.

While the 17 underlying claims were resolved through the manufacturers’ informal dispute settlement procedure, either through settlements or arbitration awards, Kimmel & Silverman went on to file civil actions seeking to cover legal fees associated with its representation of the motorists.

The firm had provided legal services to the drivers at no cost, and none of the informal dispute settlement procedures at issue allowed for the recovery of attorneys’ fees, the record shows.

Nevertheless, the law firm obtained “assignments of rights” from each vehicle purchaser, which purportedly allowed Kimmel & Silverman to pursue the purchasers’ “rights” to lawyers’ fees under the state’s Lemon Law, notes the Superior Court’s July 17 opinion.

The record shows that Volkswagen and Nissan initially filed a petition for declaratory relief, to which the firm filed an answer also seeking declaratory relief, claiming violations of the Lemon Law, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, and the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.

In late 2011, Volkswagen and Nissan filed a motion for summary judgment, which Toyota and Kia joined early the following year.

Following oral arguments, a Philadelphia judge ruled in favor of the vehicle manufacturers.

On appeal, the law firm argued that the Lemon Law, as well as the MMWA and UTPCPL, require a car company to pay attorneys’ fees when a purchaser’s dispute is resolved through an informal dispute settlement procedure.

In its opinion, the appellate court noted that while Kimmel & Silverman argues that the legislative intent behind the Lemon Law is to provide for a right to attorneys’ fees at “every stage of the Lemon Law process,” the plain language of the statute includes provisions for recovery for lawyers’ fees only when a vehicle purchaser files a civil action.

In this case, the 17 purchasers were made whole by accepting settlements and awards, the court noted.

Because the purchasers’ claims under the Lemon Law have been settled, and because the purchasers are not entitled to recovery of attorneys’ fees under the statute, “we conclude that there were no Lemon Law rights remaining to assign K&S,” the Superior Court judges wrote.

The panel then turned its attention to the law firm’s claims under the state’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, which the judges noted limits recovery to “purchasers (or lessors) of goods who suffer loss of money or property as a result of unfair trade practices.”

The appeals judges wrote that the law firm lacks standing to bring a claim under the UTPCPL because it is neither the purchaser, nor the lessor, of the defective vehicles at issue.

Accordingly, the panel determined that the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to the manufacturers.

The opinion was written by Superior Court Judge Eugene Strassburger.

The two other judges who participated in the decision were Jack Panella and Judith Ference Olson.

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