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Computer Lemons Get Pa. Legislator's Attention

By Ambre S. Brown, Inquirer Staff Writer

By February, Michael F. Hilton was fed up.

The problems with the Gateway G-6 200 computer system had come one after another since he purchased it for his daughter in August 1997: The CD drive did not work; the computer would not turn on; the control panel and switch needed to be replaced; the hard drive broke.

Exasperated with the response of Gateway's customer-service department and angry because of the months of lost use, Hilton sent a letter on Feb. 18, 1999, to Theodore Waitt, Gateway's chairman and chief executive officer.

He sent a copy of the letter to his state representative, Bethlehem Democrat T.J. Rooney. Today in Harrisburg, Rooney is responding to complaints such as Hilton's by introducing a bill that he says would give Pennsylvania the nation's first "computer lemon law."

Rooney's proposal would be named for the law that protects automobile buyers whose cars are not fixed despite repeated attempts. His goal is to provide similar protection for computer buyers, who Rooney said often pay thousands of dollars for systems that never work right.

That was Hilton's complaint - and things only got worse after that first letter to Gateway's chairman.

"My daughter is a month into the new semester without a computer," wrote Hilton, a director of investor relations at Air Products & Chemicals Inc. in Trexlertown, Pa. "My guess is that she'll wait another two weeks. At this point, the motherboard is the only major component that hasn't been replaced."

Two days after he sent the letter, a new hard drive was installed, but the system would not reboot. In a second letter on March 3, Hilton demanded a replacement computer. By that time, the motherboard had failed too.

"Today the technician installed the new motherboard," Hilton wrote. "The system is finally up, however now the CD drive doesn't work. My daughter asked the technician to handle it, but he said we had to call technical service yet again." Nor did the printer work - the driver was on the last hard drive, and no one had copied it to the new one.

Rooney said he had heard similar stories from many constituents.

"When I would mention it offhand, I realized that everyone has a horror story," he said.

Computer manufacturers don't agree that such problems are widespread.

Greg Lund, a manager in corporate communications at Gateway in North Sioux City, S.D., said the company strives for customer satisfaction. Lund said that cases such as Hilton's were rarities.

"We're certainly sorry the client had so much trouble with the system," he said in a telephone interview. "We did make efforts to get the system up and running. . . . The vast majority don't have problems like this."

Rooney's proposal would require manufacturers who sell systems to Pennsylvania residents to provide warranty repairs for at least two years. If a problem persists after two attempts to correct it, or if the manufacturer does not respond in a timely manner, the computer owner would be entitled to a full refund or a replacement unit.

Like the automobile lemon law, Rooney's proposal would allow computer owners to obtain a lawyer, whose fees would be paid by the manufacturer.

Because of the similarity in issues, Rooney solicited help in drafting the bill from Craig Thor Kimmel, a managing partner at Kimmel & Silverman and one of the region's busiest lawyers dealing with the auto lemon law.

Kimmel, who said he has already represented dozens of computer buyers under general federal consumer-protection laws, said computer-makers were "making warranty promises but not coming through."

"Next to a car and a house . . . this is the biggest investment that a consumer will make," Kimmel said in an interview. "We want to make sure they honor their warranties and make sure the computers are fixed," or replaced if they can't be repaired. The law would apply to new computers and to used computers that are still under manufacturers' warranties.

Kimmel said that through his firm's Internet site, http://www.computerlemonlaw.com, and by word of mouth, hundreds of people have contacted the firm, which has offices in Ambler and Haddonfield, about computer problems.

Kimmel said his firm argues computer complaint cases under the federal Magnusson Moss Warranty Act, which says all consumer products that cost more than $10 must be repaired or replaced under warranty. But under that law, a lawyer who takes a case is entitled to fees only if successful and at the discretion of a judge.

Kimmel said a stronger law, easily enforceable, was needed to protect computer owners.

"Whereas a toaster, blender or TV set is covered by Magnusson, you need a statute that specifically addresses the needs of computer consumers and warranties," he said.

©1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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