If a business deceived me, can I sue? This question has been around for as long as businesses have been around. The answer was not always obvious, but a recent court opinion has made it easier for Washingtonians to sue businesses for unfair or deceptive business acts and practices.
Washington State Consumer Laws
Washington State has various consumer laws to protect its citizens from unfair and illegal business acts and practices. The most widely known consumer protection law is Washington’s “Lemon Law,” which can require a manufacturer or dealership to replace or refund the cost of a car if it could not be repaired after four or more service attempts within the warranty period. Other consumer laws protect against identity theft, charging an excessive interest rate, telemarketing fraud, and deceptive business practices. This blog article only discusses deceptive business acts and practices.
When is a business act or practice deceptive?
We are constantly bombarded with advertising on television. Does everything said about a product or service in the advertisement have to be accurate? When you go to a dealership to buy a car, does the salesperson have to be 100% truthful with you about the car? Businesses are allowed to exaggerate their products and services. This is called “puffing.” For example, an advertisement might say, “The grease comes right off!” Or a salesperson might say, “The car runs great.” These statements would not be considered unfair or deceptive because they are general statements about quality.
On the other hand, when a business makes specific statements about its product or service that is flat-out false and that statement has the capacity to deceive the public, then it is considered unfair or deceptive. Consider odometer tampering. There is only one reason why a seller would roll back a vehicle’s odometer. Consumers are more likely to buy a car with fewer miles on it because they believe it will last longer and be more reliable than a high-mileage car. This is an obvious case of unfair or deceptive business practices.
Most unfair or deceptive business acts or practices are not as obvious as odometer tampering. As a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision held, an unfair or deceptive business act or practice can seem quite harmless on the surface, or even be a mistake, but still provide a valid basis to sue a business.
In 2020, the Washington State Supreme Court decided the case of Young v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. The plaintiff sued Toyota for an unfair or deceptive business practice under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act after he bought a pickup that did not have a rearview mirror with an outside temperature display. The plaintiff claimed Toyota advertised on its website that the pickup had an outside temperature display feature on the rearview mirror when in fact it did not. Toyota quickly removed the advertisement when it realized its mistake. Still, over 140 people bought pickups without outside temperature displays.
Toyota estimated the cost of the temperature display feature at $10. Toyota offered every consumer who purchased the pickup $100 in compensation for its advertising mistake. The plaintiff declined the $100 and filed a civil lawsuit against Toyota under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act, RCW 19.86.020.
In its opinion, the Washington State Supreme Court set out five elements the plaintiff was required to prove: (1) there was an unfair or deceptive act or practice, (2) that occurred in trade or commerce, (3) that affected the public interest, (4) that plaintiff suffered damages, and (5) that plaintiff’s damages were caused by the unfair or deceptive business practice.
If a consumer can prove these five elements, the consumer can recover its attorney fees, the costs of litigation, and three times actual damages up to a maximum of an additional $25,000.
The court found that Toyota’s advertising was in fact unfair or deceptive simply because it had the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the public. The court further found that the unfair or deceptive act occurred in trade or commerce and affected the public interest. Critics argued that because the outside temperature display feature only cost $10, whereas the pickup cost over $35,000, there was little or no harm to consumers to justify a Consumer Protection Act lawsuit.
The Washington State Supreme Court ignored arguments that it should determine whether the unfair or deceptive practice pertained to an important part of the transaction. In other words, the cost of the outside temperature display is irrelevant.
Unfortunately for the plaintiff, he did not prevail in this case because he could not prove he suffered any damages. Although the plaintiff testified he would not have bought the pickup if he had known it did not come with the $10 outside temperature display, his testimony was not found believable. Ultimately, the plaintiff received $0.
The Young opinion is important to Washingtonians for a couple of reasons. First, many states require that the unfair or deceptive act or practice pertain to something important to the transaction. Washington is now different. The Young opinion made clear that plaintiffs can file lawsuits based on violations of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act for advertising mistakes and items incidental to the transaction.
Second, an individual consumer does not have to be deceived before she or he can file a Consumer Protection Act lawsuit. The key question is whether the unfair or deceptive act or practice has the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the public. So, had Toyota not advertised on its website that its pickup trucks came with an outdoor temperature display on the rearview mirror, the act might not have classified as unfair or deceptive because it did not have the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the public.
Navigating Washington consumer protection laws can be complicated and requires the assistance of an experienced civil litigation attorney. If you believe you were the victim of an unfair or deceptive business act or practice, call attorney Jeff Aultman. Aultman Law is a small law firm with big law firm experience representing businesses and consumers in business litigation matters, construction defects, personal injury cases, and insurance defense. Clients enjoy unparalleled customer service, transparent fees, and an excellent track record. Experience is the difference.
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