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.
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.”
- 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.
- 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
- The promotion of sustainable consumption patterns
- Protections for vulnerable or disadvantaged consumers
- E-Commerce Rights
- Equal protection for consumers conducting purchases over the internet
- The protection of consumer privacy and free flow of information
- Economic Interest Protections
- Policies that promote and protect consumers’ economic interests
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.
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.
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.
Hiring a Lawyer
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.
- The product was defective.
- The product caused you injuries or a loss.
- The product defect is what caused your injury.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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