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Crouching warranties, hidden liabilities

Crouching warranties, hidden liabilities

Sometimes legal risks can creep up on you. Last week I was given a digital photo frame clearly intended to store photographs of grandchildren, cats and holidays. So I unpacked it and realised it didn’t look like any gadget I had ever seen before.

No worries, it had a manual. I opened the manual, and for a moment thought that my eyesight was failing me. Then I realised that each instruction was in Chinese, followed by an English “translation” in four-point font (seriously!). First sentence: “Digital frame ... Settle a space in a twinkling at your happy time! Need not a computer, need not to hurdle to print [the mind boggles], reappear fascinating appearance at any time.” I am not making this up – even my imagination is not that good. Fortunately, it got better after that as the techos took over from the marketers.

When you buy goods, the warranty and other documentation (including the all-important instruction manual) are actually part of the goods themselves.

I certainly thought so a couple of weeks ago when I bought a complex weather monitoring station and took it back because it didn’t have an instruction manual.

So did the helpful retailer. After all, if you have no way of finding out how to use the goods, they clearly are not fit for their purpose. Just be aware that you could end up with a customer returning otherwise perfectly good products and claiming a remedy under the Consumer Guarantees Act.

Another trap I saw recently involved the trademark on a knife. Now it has taken me years to persuade my better half not to put good knives in the dishwasher. Dishwasher detergent eats away at the sharp edges of the blades. I saw a new knife recently with a ceramic blade that I was told would be fine in the dishwasher.

Great! But – its trademark, written permanently on the blade, was “Everlasting”! Now that’s just as bad as those so-called “lifetime warranties”. Whose lifetime? The customer’s? The manufacturer’s? Does it just mean till it wears out?

But I digress. It’s not unreasonable for customers to expect a product called “Everlasting” to last forever. It is quite logical. So their rights under the Consumer Guarantees Act might well last forever. Did I hear you say, “But surely a customer wouldn’t think that?” And that’s the thing about the “but surely” test: as soon as you hear those words, you know you’ve got a real problem.

Oh yes, they would expect it to last forever. And why not? The manufacturer has told them it will. Under the Consumer Guarantees Act wording like that becomes an enforceable express guarantee – a representation of the supplier or manufacturer as to the characteristics of the goods. It also sets customers’ expectations of the durability of the product: reasonable durability is one of the elements of the Consumer Guarantees Act guarantee of acceptable quality. And how long will the retailer and the manufacturer be liable?

Well, I have had a client who faced a customer claim 30 years down the track of a “lifetime warranty” – and the customer still had proof of purchase!

So do remember how easy it is to get caught up in the technical elements of a product and miss these important aspects which influence customers’ reasonable expectations. Unfulfilled expectations lead to claims and create time-consuming, and often expensive, liabilities for you. But please excuse me: I need to “hurdle” to print this column right now.

This article is intended for general information, and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for advice relating to your own specific legal problems. Rae Nield can be contacted at raenield@marketinglaw.co.nz.


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