Legal-Ease: Scopes and durations of warranties
State law requires that every item sold actually be able to do what the item is designed to do, which is called “merchantability”. In other words, if I buy a snowblower that cannot blow snow, that inability to do what the snowblower is designed to do violates the legally required warranty of merchantability. How long a purchased item is to be merchantable is defined as a reasonable period of time considering the price and character of the purchased item.
There are other state laws that govern warranties, but most breach of warranty claims are asserted as violations of federal warranty law, specifically the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. That warranty law prohibits misrepresentations in warranties and also requires that everyone who is promised a warranty (beyond merchantability) on a consumer item that is sold for more than $10 is provided with a written copy of that warranty when the item is purchased.
The law indicates that the warranty must be described as “full” or “partial”. However, a full warranty may not cover every type of defect. For instance, a refrigerator may have a full warranty on the compressor only, which means that if the compressor fails to function during the warranty period, the compressor will be “fully” replaced or refunded with no expense or only legally inconsequential expense and effort required of the purchaser.
Limited warranties differ from full warranties in that limited warranties can require the purchaser to pay the cost of shipping the item to the warranty provider or pay the labor for any repair of the item.
The scopes of warranties are one thing. A warranty’s duration is an altogether different challenge.
Lifetime guarantees/warranties are the most confusing warranty durations of all.
A lifetime warranty may mean a duration of the operation of a primary item to which the purchased item is attached. This type of lifetime warranty would warrant a bumper for the lifetime of the car to which a bumper is attached.
A lifetime warranty may mean a duration of the reasonable lifetime of the item if regularly used. For instance, a certain winter clothing company defines each item’s expected lifetime of use. That company uses their expected lifetime of use of the item as the definition of their “lifetime warranty”. But the company terminates that warranty early if the original owner dies or no longer owns the item.
Thus, businesses are strongly encouraged to avoid offering lifetime warranties due to the inherent confusion over what “lifetime” means.
For example, earlier this month, a Wisconsin man sued an athletic clothing company that sold wool socks with a lifetime warranty. The wool socks were advertised as “the last sock you will ever need to buy.” Over several years, the man purchased six pairs of socks and was originally given free replacements multiple times when those six pairs (and the six pairs’ replacements) wore out. However, last year, the company replaced the worn-out lifetime socks with socks that only had a 60-day warranty, and the lawsuit was thereafter filed.
By Lee R. Schroeder
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.