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Lawyer promotes passage of computer 'lemon law'

(IDG) -- It is not always happy times for vendors showcasing their latest wares here at Comdex. Hardware makers, in particular, may run into a few surprises with consumer rights advocate Craig Thor Kimmel roaming the streets.

Kimmel, an attorney with Kimmel & Silverman P.C. based in Pennsylvania, came here to Las Vegas to promote what he hopes will become a national campaign to force hardware makers into complying with their warranties.

He feels some of the major computer manufacturers make it difficult for consumers to repair faulty machines and wants to extend the same type of "lemon law" that exists for car makers onto the desktop. U.S. car makers are required by law to fix warrantied vehicles in what is considered a "reasonable" number of repair attempts during the time the warranty is in effect.

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In the lawsuits he has filed thus far, users often complain of calling the vendors' help desks and finding either that it takes too long to reach customer service or that the companies often blame the problem on the software or various applications not their hardware.

"What we are basically trying to do is give computer manufacturers a reason to repair consumer products in the way they promised in the warranty," Kimmel said, in an interview here. "The bottom line is if you are going to have a complex product that doesn't function, then tell people. Don't tell them it is free of defects."

Kimmel said that the PC industry currently admits to a 1 percent defect rate. While the technology in question remains relatively new and works most of the time, he feels that computers have become such an essential part of many people's day-to-day activities that hardware makers should have an enforced responsibility to make sure that 1 percent of them get helped. Computers are in many instances as indispensable to people as their cars, he explained.

Kimmel has taken 100 of these cases to trial in Pennsylvania and won all of them.

He admits that some of his opponents in the computer industry argue against him by saying "give us 70 years and then expect this technology to work all the time." Kimmel, however, argues that the computer is now essential to many people's lives and he only wants vendors to admit their machines can have flaws from the outset and document the ways consumers can fix the problems.

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"Most people only have one computer," Kimmel said. "The hassle for the consumer to lose access to financial data or contact data for a minimum of ten days (while the vendor repairs the unit) is enough. People depend on their computer for many things."

Kimmel now wants to create a "two-strikes" system to encourage PC makers to help out their users. Each vendor would have two cracks at fixing problems and would need to provide a new machine after the third problem. If a consumer has to resort to seeking a refund in court, Kimmel wants the lemon law to mandate that the manufacturer pay for the refund and the lawyer's fee if the vendor loses the case. If the manufacturer files for an appeal, Kimmel said the courts should award an extra $1,500 if the appeal fails, an extra $3,000 if another appeal fails and then $6,000 if the case goes before a jury and the manufacturer loses again.

His efforts to enact this lemon law have reached the Pennsylvania House of Representatives thus far. Representative T.J. Rooney sponsored and created the bill with Kimmel. They plan for the bill to reach the Pennsylvania Senate and then the state's governor by around the middle of the second quarter of next year.

Kimmel did say that Hewlett-Packard Co. provides a pleasant surprise for frustrated consumers. "HP is the best I have come in contact with," he said. "Their corporate strategy is 'we care.'" Kimmel added that when he first brought the case for the lemon law in front of the House of Representatives, HP was the only vendor to make an appearance. "They were the only ones that didn't need to be there," he quipped.

Kimmel hopes to take the case to a federal level in the near future and said this approach is the only way to make a change in the industry. He also will extend his complaints beyond the PC to cover many types of hardware, including modems, fax machines and mobile phones.

For those trying to point a finger at some buggy software, Kimmel said the manufacturers should be responsible for anything bundled on the machine at the time of purchase.

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