Many people buy Certified Pre Owned cars believing the CPO designation means more than it does. It is one of the most common complaints I get at my office: Someone bought a CPO car that turned out to have major problems. Will the CPO designation help in a lawsuit? Probably not.

Certified Pre Owned – CPO – cars are are usually late model used vehicles which have been given a factory blessing after being inspected at the direction of the manufacturer. This process usually involves a lengthy checklist of things which have been inspected and then sees the car sold with some sort of extended warranty also from the manufacturer. There are variations of course and the term is bandied about quite a bit by people who give it different meanings. Read Tom's excellent article for the nuance I haven't got room for here.

I hear from people who have bought CPO cars with undisclosed accident histories as well as unfixable problems. Those problems might be covered by the warranty that came with the CPO but they are unfixable nonetheless. The question is: What does CPO mean legally in this setting? Almost nothing.

The CPO designation is a marketing tool and little more. Many people think the "CPO" designation itself is a warranty. It is not. The manufacturers are very careful to avoid making it into one as well.

Remember that a warranty in most states is

Any affirmation of fact or promise made by the seller to the buyer which relates to the goods and becomes part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the goods shall conform to the affirmation or promise.

What exactly does a manufacturer affirm or promise to the buyer of a CPO? Ford, for example, promises that their CPO cars have passed a 172-point inspection. Mercedes-Benz claims their CPOs have undergone a "painstaking certification process." These vehicles could still turn out to be irreparably defective. If the car passed that inspection before it was sold to you, then the CPO status can be given.

Notice how manufacturers tap dance around what the CPO designation means. MBUSA:

When you choose a Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) Mercedes-Benz, you get much more than an extraordinary automobile. You get industry-leading coverage — which now includes unlimited mileage with all CPO warranties.

Let's break that into its two components. You get:

1) "An extraordinary automobile."

2) A CPO warranty.

1 is legally meaningless: the law explicitly states that subjective statements about the goods like that are not warranties:

an affirmation merely of the value of the goods or a statement purporting to be merely the seller's opinion or commendation of the goods does not create a warranty.

As for 2, above, a warranty is a warranty is a warranty.

It bears repeating: The CPO designation itself is NOT a warranty. The value of the CPO is in the warranty it comes with. Ford's CPO brings a 12/12 "comprehensive limited warranty" along with a 7/100 powertrain limited warranty. MBUSA's CPO comes with a warranty of unlimited mileage which runs for a year but can be extended. It is these warranties you would be pursuing if the vehicle has problems.

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And, of course, the Lemon Laws of most states don't cover used cars in situations like this. The CPO designation will not revive a Lemon Law claim. Certified Pre Owned is still "used."

So, if your CPO car turns out to to have unfixable problems, or has an accident history that was not disclosed to you, can you sue someone for breach of the CPO? No. What you can do is pursue the same claims anyone with a used car pursues when they were lucky enough to get a warranty or service contract with their purchase. It won't be a lemon law claim and will probably be very hard to pursue. And the CPO will not make a bit of difference in your case.

Does this mean that I am discouraging you from buying a CPO? Not at all. If the price is right – a good price for a late model used car with a factory warranty – then by all means consider it. Just don't think that the CPO designation gives you any legal advantage. It doesn't.

Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto

Hear my podcast on iTunes: Lehto's Law

Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.

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