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The Magnuson-Moss Act and Phantom Warranties

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. A clear description of the products, parts, characteristics, components, or properties covered, and where necessary for clarity, a description of what is excluded.
  3. 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.
  4. A statement of when the warranty period starts and when it expires.
  5. 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.
  6. Instructions on how the consumer can be availed of any informal dispute resolution mechanism established by the warranty.
  7. 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.
  8. Any limitations or exclusions on relief, such as consequential damages—as above, the warranty must explain that some states do not allow such limitations.
  9. 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 means (1) the defective product or part will be fixed or replaced for free, including removal and reinstallation; (2) it will be fixed within a reasonable time; (3) the consumer need not do anything unreasonable (like shipping the piano to the factory) to get warranty service; (4) the warranty is good for anyone who owns the product during the period of the warranty; (5) 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 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 seller’s 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. 1 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.” (Unconscionability was discussed in Legality .)

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.