Legal Options for Consumer Rights Cases

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Consumer rights and consumer protection go hand in hand, and these refer to the laws designed to safeguard consumers. One popular type of case involves product liability. This lesson briefly explains a consumer's options in a consumer rights case.

What are Consumer Rights?

Did you buy a cup of coffee this morning, or fill your tank with gas? If so, you've already acted as a consumer today. Consumers are simply people who buy things. We are all consumers, and we all partake in consumerism. Generally, consumerism is the act of acquiring goods and services.

But this is just one definition of consumerism. In business, economy and the law, consumerism means to promote the rights and safety of consumers. It refers to consumer rights, or the privileges of people who buy things. It is based on the general idea that consumers have a basic right to health and safety. For example, you have the inherent right to receive the item you paid for and not to be harmed by the item.

What are Consumer Protection Laws?

How do we guarantee these rights? We use consumer protection. This refers to laws and other forms of government regulation designed to protect our health and safety. Consumer protection laws are administered mainly by the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, which serves as our nation's consumer protection agency.

So what happens when a manufacturer or seller breaks a consumer protection law? Let's look at a particular type of consumer protection law so we can better understand how these cases work. One of the most popular types of consumer rights cases involves product liability. Generally speaking, product liability is the legal responsibility imposed on a business for manufacturing or selling defective goods. These are state laws, so they vary by state, but all are based on the premise that manufacturers and vendors know more about the products than consumers do. When something goes wrong, these businesses are held responsible even when the consumers are somewhat at fault. Businesses are held responsible for:

  • Design flaws
  • Manufacturing defects
  • Failing to warn consumers of possible dangers

What is a Consumer Rights Case?

Product liability cases are typically large civil lawsuits, and can result in sizable money judgments. They are often class-action lawsuits, meaning a group of people sues the defendant as one party. Each of the people in the class must have suffered the same or similar type of harm by the same product or action. For example, in 1994, three breast implant manufacturers settled a class-action lawsuit consolidating 12,000 cases and involving more than 25,000 women. The women claimed silicone breast implants caused them to suffer autoimmune diseases. The suit was settled for a record-breaking $3.4 billion.

Product liability cases like this one help bring about new consumer protection laws, like the regulations regarding seatbelt designs and what chemicals can be used in products. But the cases don't typically start out as large, multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits. In fact, many can be settled without the use of a lawyer through small claims court. In most states, people can file their own lawsuits and present their own informal cases as long as the dollar amount at stake is fairly low. Many states set the limit around $5,000, though Tennessee's limit is $25,000. Say you were cut on a sharp door handle and want to recover your medical expenses of $2,000; you might file your case in small claims court without the use of an attorney.

McDonald's Hot Coffee Case

Let's look at an example consumer rights case, famously known as the ''McDonald's hot coffee case,'' to better understand a consumer's options. Mrs. Liebeck was a 79-year old grandmother, riding in her grandson's car, when she bought a cup of coffee in the drive-through. The two parked so Liebeck could add cream and sugar. She put the Styrofoam cup of coffee between her legs to remove the lid, but she accidentally spilled the entire cup of coffee in her lap. She suffered third-degree burns, spent eight days in the hospital and ultimately underwent numerous skin-graft surgeries.

An investigation revealed that McDonald's routinely served its coffee at a much higher temperature than many other similar restaurants, and had received hundreds of injury reports before Liebeck was injured. This shows both a design flaw and a failure to warn customers, meaning that McDonald's was likely liable to Liebeck.

As with most consumer rights cases, Liebeck asked McDonald's to pay her known and anticipated medical bills, around $20,000. These are known as actual damages, and many businesses simply choose to pay the consumer as long as the consumer can verify the amount. At this point in the case, Liebeck could simply present her medical bills to McDonald's along with a demand letter, which is a letter from Liebeck, or Leibeck's attorney, requesting the money by a certain date.

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