The average American spends more than $14,000 a year on food, clothes, personal care products, and a variety of other consumer goods.

Most of the time, we take for granted that the products we’ve purchased will work, or at the very least, that they won’t harm us.

But sometimes things go wrong.

Most of the time, the consequences are minor. We may have to return to the store to exchange the item for one that works. Or we might find ourselves out a few bucks.

In the worst cases, the consequences can be severe, or even catastrophic.

Harmful or defective products contribute to thousands of injuries and deaths each year and cost the country an estimated $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

It’s a staggering toll that shows why consumer protection — and knowing your rights as a consumer — is so vitally important.

consulting a lawyer

What Are the Key Rights of Consumers?

John F. Kennedy was the first president to promote the idea that all consumers have specific rights. In a 1962 speech to the U.S. Congress, he outlined four basic consumer rights , which have become known as the “Consumer Bill of Rights.”

Those rights include:
The Right to Safety
Protection from goods or services that can endanger your health or life.
The Right to Be Informed
Protection from false or misleading advertising, labeling and packaging and the guarantee that consumers have enough information to make informed purchases.
The Right to Choose
Access to a variety of essential products and services at competitive prices.
The Right to Be Heard
Freedom to form consumer groups and assurances that consumer interests are represented in government policy and other decision-making processes that affect them.

These basic principles are the underpinnings of frameworks that most state and federal regulatory agencies follow today to safeguard consumers.

Since the inception of the Consumer Bill of Rights, others have expanded on Kennedy’s vision to include additional consumer rights.

The UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection, for instance, provide a voluntary benchmark for good consumer protection policies that countries can follow.

They include the four basic rights described above and several other legitimate consumer needs including:
Redress Opportunities
An established mechanism to correct problems, resolve disputes and compensate consumers for poor service or defective products.
Consumer Education
Access to information and resources so consumers can make informed purchasing decisions
Sustainability
The promotion of sustainable consumption patterns
Inclusivity
Protections for vulnerable or disadvantaged consumers
E-Commerce Rights
Equal protection for consumers conducting purchases over the internet
Privacy
The protection of consumer privacy and free flow of information
Economic Interest Protections
Policies that promote and protect consumers’ economic interests
Consumer protection book

Consumer Protection Agencies

In the United States, a variety of laws, agencies and programs aim to protect consumers at the federal, state and local level.

Every state, for instance, has a set of regulations and laws to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices. Consumer protection offices in states and localities carry out this mission by regulating certain industries, conducting investigations, handling complaints and prosecuting those who break laws that protect consumers.

You can find your state consumer protection office easily on USA.gov. Select your state to find the names, websites, emails and phone numbers for the various state consumer protection offices near you. You may wish to contact these agencies if you have a consumer problem or want to file a complaint.

Unfortunately, the Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) statutes in many states are inadequate.

According to a 2009 analysis by the National Consumer Law Center, many states ban only a few specific types of unfairness or deception, and remedies under the law are weak. Furthermore, many states impose procedural obstacles on consumers that can make it difficult or impossible to enforce UDAP statutes.

Federal Watchdogs

The federal government also has an arsenal of agencies and laws designed to safeguard consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission is the federal watchdog that protects consumers from fraud and scams and unscrupulous business practices. You can file a complaint with an FTC if you’ve been cheated out of money. The agency may share your complaint with law enforcement or use it to investigate fraud.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was established in 1972, is charged with protecting the public from health and safety hazards associated with thousands of types of consumer products. To reduce the risk of deaths and injury related to products, the agency issues recalls. It also conducts investigations, educates the public about potential dangers, and helps private industry develop voluntary safety standards.

Did You Know?
If you’re dissatisfied with a service or product you’ve paid for, you have the right to ask for a refund. You should contact the seller as soon as possible. You may be able to resolve the issue quickly and satisfactorily. If that fails, you can file a complaint with your local consumer protection office or notify the Better Business Bureau about the issue.

Certain categories of products and services have their own dedicated watchdogs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for instance, monitors food, drugs and medical devices. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, oversees vehicle safety and motor vehicle recalls.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a relatively new agency created in 2011, helps consumers with banking and lending issues. In just seven years, the CFPB has received 1.5 million complaints and obtained $12.4 billion in relief for consumers who’ve been wronged.

lawyer contract

If you’ve been injured or harmed, you also have the right to take legal action.

Minor disputes involving small amounts of money or damages can often be handled in small claims courts. Dollar limits on claims vary by state but are generally in the range of $5,000 to $10,000.

While people often represent themselves in small claims court, you may wish to hire a lawyer. Many states require corporations and businesses to have an attorney in court, which could put you at a disadvantage.

However, if you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury or harm because of a defective product, you’ll want to hire a lawyer with experience in product liability cases.

What Is Product Liability?

Product liability is an area of law that holds manufacturers, distributors and sellers responsible for damages caused by those products.

For a successful product liability case, you must be able to prove four things:
  1. The product was defective.
  2. The product caused you injuries or a loss.
  3. The product defect is what caused your injury.
  4. You were using the product correctly.

Product liability claims are filed in state courts and are generally based upon the legal principles of negligence, breach of warranty and strict liability.

  • Negligence means the product manufacturer did not exercise the level of caution it should have to reduce the risk of harm caused by the product.
  • Breach of warranty means the seller has failed to fulfill the terms of a promise about the quality or safety of its product.
  • Strict liability means the defendant is liable — or responsible for damages — caused by their defective product, regardless of their intent.

Most defect liabilities involve design defects, manufacturing detects or defects in how the product was marketed. That can include a failure to issue proper instructions or warn consumers of potential dangers.

High-Profile Litigation

Thousands of product liability lawsuits are filed every year — and some have generated large verdicts and settlements.

More than 9,300 consumers, for instance, are suing manufacturers of the weed killer Roundup.

The Roundup lawsuits allege that years of exposure to the glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide, and other chemicals caused people to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2018, a jury awarded $289 million to a California man who blamed his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on years of Roundup use. The award was later reduced to $78 million.

Other common product liability cases involve defective drugs and medical devices.

More than 2,000 consumers have sued the manufacturers of the antipsychotic medication Abilify after developing severe and unexpected adverse effects. The Abilify lawsuits claim that the drug was defective and caused them to develop compulsive behaviors, including compulsive gambling, overeating and excessive sexual urges.

Abilify lawsuit stat

And thousands of consumers have filed suit against prosthetic knee manufacturers after their replacements failed. In 2002, Sulzer Medica paid $1 billion to settle approximately 4,000 knee replacement lawsuits, but similar cases are pending against other manufacturers and more cases are expected to be filed.

Knee replacement lawsuit stats

Class Actions

Consumer class action suits are another important legal remedy.

In a class action lawsuit, a single individual or small group of plaintiffs sue on behalf of a large group known as “the class.”

Every member of the class must have been harmed by the same defective product, fraud or illegal conduct. The sheer number of people affected in a class action lawsuit makes it impossible to try each case individually.

Class actions also make it possible for lawyers to take on cases that on their own wouldn’t be worth the time or money to pursue.

Massive data breaches — such as the one involving Marriott that exposed the personal information of nearly 400 million consumers — have resulted in recent class action lawsuits. Other class action lawsuits involving data protection have claimed damages due to everything from robocalls to unscrupulous debt collection.

Marriott's data breach stat

Many class action lawsuits end with large settlements that are distributed to the affected class. In 2016, Volkswagen agreed to pay $14.7 billion to settle claims that it installed secret software to allow its diesel cars to cheat emissions tests, thus threatening the environmental safety of the American people.

Last Modified:

25 Cited Research Articles

  1. Brody, J. (2017, August 7). For Cosmetics, Let the Buyer Beware. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/07/well/for-cosmetics-let-the-buyer-beware.html
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2018, September 11). Consumer Expenditures—2017. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cesan.pdf
  3. Carpenter, D.H. (2018, April 24). The Consumer Product Safety Act: A Legal Analysis. Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45174.pdf
  4. City of Cambridge. (n.d.). CONSUMER RIGHTS. Retrieved from https://www.cambridgema.gov/Departments/consumerscouncil/consumerrights
  5. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (n.d.). Consumer Bill of Rights. Retrieved from https://www.mass.gov/service-details/consumer-bill-of-rights
  6. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (n.d.). We’re the CFPB. Retrieved from https://www.consumerfinance.gov/
  7. Consumers International. (2016). Consumer Protection: Why It Matters to You. Retrieved from https://www.consumersinternational.org/media/2049/un-consumer-protection-guidelines-english.pdf
  8. Consumers International. (n.d.). What Are Consumer Rights? Retrieved from https://www.consumersinternational.org/who-we-are/consumer-rights
  9. Cornell Law School. (n.d.). Products liability. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/products_liability
  10. Elliott, C. (2018, July 17). What Happens When You Need Small Claims Help? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherelliott/2018/07/17/what-happens-when-you-need-small-claims-court-help/#173c04066f1c
  11. Federal Trade Commission. (2019, February 13). FTC Enforcement Actions Yield More than $2.3 Billion in Refunds to Consumers between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/02/ftc-enforcement-actions-yield-more-23-billion-refunds-consumers?utm_source=slider
  12. Federal Trade Commission. (n.d.). About the Bureau of Consumer Protection. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/about-ftc/bureaus-offices/bureau-consumer-protection/about-bureau-consumer-protection
  13. Federal Trade Commission. (n.d.). Bureau of Consumer Protection. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/about-ftc/bureaus-offices/bureau-consumer-protection
  14. Federal Trade Commission. (n.d.). Filing a Complaint. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/identity-theft-and-data-security/filing-complaint
  15. Lazarus, D. (2018, March 15). 56 Years Later, Kennedy’s Call for a Consumer Bill of Rights is Forgotten Under Trump. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/business/lazarus/la-fi-lazarus-kennedy-consumer-bill-of-rights-20180315-story.html
  16. National Consumer Law Center Inc. (2009, February). A 50-State Report of Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices Statutes. Retrieved from https://www.nclc.org/images/pdf/car_sales/UDAP_Report_Feb09.pdf
  17. NOLO. (n.d.). Proving a Defective Product Liability Claim. Retrieved from https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/proving-defective-product-liability-claim-29531.html
  18. Pitsker, K. (2015, August). 6 Things You Must Know About Class-Action Lawsuits. Retrieved from https://www.kiplinger.com/article/spending/T037-C000-S002-6-things-you-must-know-about-class-action-lawsuits.html
  19. Radulescu, D. M. & Radulescu, V. (2011). Educating the consumer about his right to a healthy environment. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811003028
  20. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. (2012, February). Consumer Product-Related Injuries and Deaths in the United States: Estimated Injuries Occurring in 2010 and Estimated Deaths Occurring in 2008. Retrieved from https://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/134720/2010injury.pdf
  21. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2018, March 29). Laws Enforced by FDA. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/laws-enforced-fda
  22. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (2016). United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection. Retrieved from https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditccplpmisc2016d1_en.pdf
  23. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (2018, July 11). Unsafe consumer products cost the US economy $1 trillion each year. Retrieved from https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=1809
  24. USA.gov. (2018, September 18). Filing a Consumer Complaint. Retrieved from https://www.usa.gov/consumer-complaints
  25. USA.gov. (2019, February 5). Download a Copy of the Consumer Action Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.usa.gov/handbook