Warranty Theory in the United States
- 1 Warranty Theory in the United States
- 1.1 Problems with Warranty Theory in General
- 1.1.1 Exclusion or Modification of Warranties
- 1.1.2 Exclusion of Express Warranties
- 1.1.3 Exclusion of Implied Warranties in General
- 1.1.4 Implied Warranty of Merchantability
- 1.1.5 Implied Warranty of Fitness
- 1.1.6 Conflict between Express and Implied Warranties
- 1.1.7 The Magnuson-Moss Act and Phantom Warranties
- 1.1.8 Privity
- 1.1.9 Contributory Negligence, Comparative Negligence, and Assumption of Risk
- 1.2 Resources
- 1.1 Problems with Warranty Theory in General
Problems with Warranty Theory in General
It may seem that a person asserting a claim for breach of warranty will have a good chance of success under an express warranty or implied warranty theory of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. In practice, though, claimants are in many cases denied recovery. Here are four general problems:
- The claimant must prove that there was a sale.
- The sale was of goods rather than real estate or services.
- The action must be brought within the four-year statute of limitations under Article 2-725, when the tender of delivery is made, not when the plaintiff discovers the defect.
- Under UCC, Section 2-607(3)(a) and Section 2A-516(3)(a), which covers leases, the claimant who fails to give notice of breach within a reasonable time of having accepted the goods will see the suit dismissed, and few consumers know enough to do so, except when making a complaint about a purchase of spoiled milk or about paint that wouldn’t dry.
In addition to these general problems, the claimant faces additional difficulties stemming directly from warranty theory, which we take up later in this chapter. (1)
Exclusion or Modification of Warranties
The UCC permits sellers to exclude or disclaim warranties in whole or in part. That’s reasonable, given that the discussion here is about contract, and parties are free to make such contracts as they see fit. But a number of difficulties can arise. (2)
Exclusion of Express Warranties
The simplest way for the seller to exclude express warranties is not to give them. To be sure, Section 2-316(1) of the UCC forbids courts from giving operation to words in fine print that negate or limit express warranties if doing so would unreasonably conflict with express warranties stated in the main body of the contract—as, for example, would a blanket statement that “this contract excludes all warranties express or implied.” The purpose of the UCC provision is to prevent customers from being surprised by unbargained-for language. (3) For more information about express warranties, click here.
Exclusion of Implied Warranties in General
Implied warranties can be excluded easily enough also, by describing the product with language such as “as is” or “with all faults.” Nor is exclusion simply a function of what the seller says. The buyer who has either examined or refused to examine the goods before entering into the contract may not assert an implied warranty concerning defects an inspection would have revealed. (4)
The Convention, in its Article 35, offers a similar solution in relation a buyer’s rights when he has failed to inspect the goods: “The seller is not liable…for any lack of conformity of the goods if at the time of the conclusion of the contract the buyer knew or could not have been unaware of such lack of conformity.”
Implied Warranty of Merchantability
Section 2-316(2) of the UCC permits the seller to disclaim or modify the implied warranty of merchantability, as long as the statement actually mentions “merchantability” and, if it is written, is “conspicuous.” Note that the disclaimer need not be in writing, and—again—all implied warranties can be excluded as noted. (5) For more information about Merchantability, click here.
Implied Warranty of Fitness
Section 2-316(2) of the UCC permits the seller also to disclaim or modify an implied warranty of fitness. This disclaimer or modification must be in writing, however, and must be conspicuous. It need not mention fitness explicitly; general language will do. The following sentence, for example, is sufficient to exclude all implied warranties of fitness: “There are no warranties that extend beyond the description on the face of this contract.” For more information about Implied Warranty of Fitness, click here.
Here is a standard disclaimer clause found in a Dow Chemical Company agreement: “Seller warrants that the goods supplied here shall conform to the description stated on the front side hereof, that it will convey good title, and that such goods shall be delivered free from any lawful security interest, lien, or encumbrance. SELLER MAKES NO WARRANTY OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR USE. NOR IS THERE ANY OTHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTY.” (6)
Conflict between Express and Implied Warranties
Express and implied warranties and their exclusion or limitation can often conflict. Section 2-317 of the UCC provides certain rules for deciding which should prevail. In general, all warranties are to be construed as consistent with each other and as cumulative. When that assumption is unreasonable, the parties’ intention governs the interpretation, according to the following rules: (a) exact or technical specifications displace an inconsistent sample or model or general language of description; (b) a sample from an existing bulk displaces inconsistent general language of description; (c) express warranties displace inconsistent implied warranties other than an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.
Any inconsistency among warranties must always be resolved in favor of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. This doesn’t mean that warranty cannot be limited or excluded altogether. The parties may do so. But in cases of doubt whether it or some other language applies, the implied warranty of fitness will have a superior claim. (7) For more information about implied warranties, click here.
The Magnuson-Moss Act and Phantom Warranties
After years of debate over extending federal law to regulate warranties, Congress enacted the Magnuson-Moss Federal Trade Commission Warranty Improvement Act (more commonly referred to as the Magnuson-Moss Act) and President Ford signed it in 1975. The act was designed to clear up confusing and misleading warranties, where—as Senator Magnuson put it in introducing the bill—“purchasers of consumer products discover that their warranty may cover a 25-cent part but not the $100 labor charge or that there is full coverage on a piano so long as it is shipped at the purchaser’s expense to the factory.…There is a growing need to generate consumer understanding by clearly and conspicuously disclosing the terms and conditions of the warranty and by telling the consumer what to do if his guaranteed product becomes defective or malfunctions.” The Magnuson-Moss Act only applies to consumer products (for household and domestic uses); commercial purchasers are presumed to be knowledgeable enough not to need these protections, to be able to hire lawyers, and to be able to include the cost of product failures into the prices they charge. For more information about warranties, click here.
The act has several provisions to meet these consumer concerns; it regulates the content of warranties and the means of disclosing those contents. The act gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the authority to promulgate detailed regulations to interpret and enforce it. Under FTC regulations, any written warranty for a product costing a consumer more than ten dollars must disclose in a single document and in readily understandable language the following nine items of information:
- The identity of the persons covered by the warranty, whether it is limited to the original purchaser or fewer than all who might come to own it during the warranty period.
- A clear description of the products, parts, characteristics, components, or properties covered, and where necessary for clarity, a description of what is excluded.
- A statement of what the warrantor will do if the product fails to conform to the warranty, including items or services the warranty will pay for and, if necessary for clarity, what it will not pay for.
- A statement of when the warranty period starts and when it expires.
- A step-by-step explanation of what the consumer must do to realize on the warranty, including the names and addresses of those to whom the product must be brought.
Instructions on how the consumer can be availed of any informal dispute resolution mechanism established by the warranty.
- Any limitations on the duration of implied warranties—since some states do not permit such limitations, the warranty must contain a statement that any limitations may not apply to the particular consumer.
- Any limitations or exclusions on relief, such as consequential damages—as above, the warranty must explain that some states do not allow such limitations.
- The following statement: “This warranty gives you specific legal rights, and you may also have other rights which vary from state to state.”
In addition to these requirements, the act requires that the warranty be labeled either a full or limited warranty. A full warranty (under the Magnuson-Moss Act, a complete promise of satisfaction limited only in duration) means:
- the defective product or part will be fixed or replaced for free, including removal and reinstallation;
- it will be fixed within a reasonable time;
- the consumer need not do anything unreasonable (like shipping the piano to the factory) to get warranty service;
- the warranty is good for anyone who owns the product during the period of the warranty;
- the consumer gets money back or a new product if the item cannot be fixed within a reasonable number of attempts.
But the full warranty may not cover the whole product: it may cover only the hard drive in the computer, for example; it must state what parts are included and excluded. A limited warranty (under the Magnuson-Moss Act, a less-than-full warranty) is less inclusive. It may cover only parts, not labor; it may require the consumer to bring the product to the store for service; it may impose a handling charge; it may cover only the first purchaser. Both full and limited warranties may exclude consequential damages.
Disclosure of the warranty provisions prior to sale is required by FTC regulations; this can be done in a number of ways. The text of the warranty can be attached to the product or placed in close conjunction to it. It can be maintained in a binder kept in each department or otherwise easily accessible to the consumer. Either the binders must be in plain sight or signs must be posted to call the prospective buyer’s attention to them. A notice containing the text of the warranty can be posted, or the warranty itself can be printed on the product’s package or container.
Phantom warranties are addressed by the Magnuson-Moss Act. As we have seen, the UCC permits the seller to disclaim implied warranties. This authority often led sellers to give what were called phantom warranties—that is, the express warranty contained disclaimers of implied warranties, thus leaving the consumer with fewer rights than if no express warranty had been given at all. In the words of the legislative report of the act, “The bold print giveth, and the fine print taketh away.” The act abolished these phantom warranties by providing that if the seller gives a written warranty, whether express or implied, he cannot disclaim or modify implied warranties. However, a seller who gives a limited warranty can limit implied warranties to the duration of the limited warranty, if the duration is reasonable.
A sellers ability to disclaim implied warranties is also limited by state law in two ways. First, by amendment to the UCC or by separate legislation, some states prohibit disclaimers whenever consumer products are sold.A number of states have special laws that limit the use of the UCC implied warranty disclaimer rules in consumer sales. Some of these appear in amendments to the UCC and others are in separate statutes. The broadest approach is that of the nine states that prohibit the disclaimer of implied warranties in consumer sales (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Maryland, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Kansas, Mississippi, and, with respect to personal injuries only, Alabama). There is a difference in these states whether the rules apply to manufacturers as well as retailers. Second, the UCC at 2-302 provides that unconscionable contracts or clauses will not be enforced. UCC 2-719(3) provides that limitation of damages for personal injury in the sale of consumer goods is prima facie unconscionable, but limitation of damages where the loss is commercial is not.
A first problem with warranty theory, then, is that it’s possible to disclaim or limit the warranty. The worst abuses of manipulative and tricky warranties are eliminated by the Magnuson-Moss Act, but there are several other reasons that warranty theory is not the panacea for claimants who have suffered damages or injuries as a result of defective products. (8)
For decades, the doctrine of privity has held that one person can sue another only if they are in privity. … But in a modern industrial (or postindustrial) economy, the product is transported through a much larger distribution system. (9) For more information about privity, click here.
Contributory Negligence, Comparative Negligence, and Assumption of Risk
After disclaimers and privity issues are resolved, other possible impediments facing the plaintiff in a products-liability warranty case are issues of assumption of the risk, contributory negligence, and comparative negligence (see Tort Law” on this legal Encyclopedia).
- “Business and the Legal Environment”, by Don Mayer, Daniel M. Warner and George J. Siedel.