My client's truck tried to kill him the day he got it. Here's how it went down: he test drove it, negotiated a price and signed some papers. When he took delivery the next day, it was a little colder than it had been the day before. He pulled off the lot and headed down the road. As the engine warmed, he turned on the defroster and hit the fan. A split second later he felt a sharp pain in his eye. He pulled onto a side street and put the truck in park, realizing instantly that something sharp had just come from the defroster duct and poked him in the eye. It was still there. He called 911 on his cellphone and asked for an ambulance. While he waited he called the dealer and told them to come get their truck; he didn't want it anymore. He did not use the magic words but he was "revoking" his "acceptance" of "non-conforming goods".
Everyone has a vague notion defective products can be returned to the seller. But it is not always the case that you can do it so easily, especially with an automobile. The example above is good because it has egregious facts. But first, let's take a quick look at the law. Most of the states in the US have adopted the Uniform Commercial Code which governs the sale of goods. When a buyer accepts goods which turn out to be defective, he may have the right to revoke his acceptance if the goods are defective and the defect is such that it was not apparent at the time of delivery. Most states have adopted the language (below) verbatim. For our purposes, "nonconformity" = "defect".
The buyer may revoke his acceptance of a lot or commercial unit whose nonconformity substantially impairs its value to him if he has accepted it [ ] without discovery of such nonconformity if his acceptance was reasonably induced [ ] by the difficulty of discovery before acceptance.
While this definition looks simple, there is a lot of nuance in there. What sort of nonconformity is necessary for you to revoke? The law says it must be one which substantially impairs the value of the goods to the buyer. What is substantial? We could chase these definitions in circles all day (depends on what your definition of "is" is) but let's get back to my client by the side of the road.
What is the defect in his vehicle? It shoots shards of glass into the eyes of the driver as it is being used for its normal purpose. Did the defect substantially impair the value of the vehicle to him? I dunno. Ever try to drive while you have a shard of glass jabbed into your eyeball? I haven't but my client said it was an issue. I believed him.
I had another client who had the steering wheel fall off in his lap as he was driving along the freeway. Substantial? How about if your car was delivered with no spare tire? I kid you not - the Michigan Supreme Court said, Sure - Why not?!
The law also requires that you revoke as soon as you discover (or should have discovered) the defect and before any substantial change in the goods occurs. In other words, stop using the goods and revoke quickly.
In the case of the truck, the dealer offered to clean the defroster ducts at no charge but refused to refund my client's money. No thanks. We filed suit. Notice that his was not a lemon law suit . It hadn't been out of service enough days or enough times to qualify. This was a simple revocation case. We sued the dealer and also sued the manufacturer under the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act (in case the broken glass was the result of a manufacturer's defect) and something funny happened. The manufacturer and the dealer began fighting with each other.
If your opponents want to fight amongst themselves, let them. I later found out what they were fighting about. The glass in my client's eye (which had been removed later that day at the hospital) was in the defroster duct because the driver's door window had been smashed as the truck was offloaded from a car hauler. Glass got all over the dash and some fell down the ducts. The dealer seemed to think the manufacturer was on the hook for that and the manufacturer thought the dealer should pay. I don't know exact details. I would have asked what role the car hauler played but the case didn't last long enough for me to volunteer that thought.
They took my client's deposition and heard him tell his story under oath. When he was done, the manufacturer's attorney told me the revocation would be honored and my client's purchase price would be refunded. I got the impression that they weren't done with the dealer yet but it wasn't my concern if those two wanted to keep fighting. My client had been made whole. And his eye was fine.
Some of you may recall a recent piece about how dealers can legally sell vehicles without disclosing their history of broken window glass and other things. The Michigan version of that law was passed AFTER I handled this case.It wouldn't have prevented the result in this case (the law says you cannot revoke simply because of undisclosed damage and repair). I merely point it since these stories all seem to tie-in with one another.
So, if you buy a product that is massively defective and you find that out after you take delivery, you may be able to return it. Depends on how defective it is and how quickly you return it. Many sellers won't just agree to the return however so I strongly urge you to consult with an attorney in your state before doing this on a big ticket item. And here's a little hint: Many attorneys will talk to potential clients for a free initial consultation and you can run this by them for free. It's usually a straight forward question. I know I answer this one all the time for people I've never met before. If it ends up being litigated, that's another matter altogether. Cross that bridge when you get to it, if you're not by the side of the road with a piece of glass stuck in your eye.
Steve Lehto has been practicing consumer protection and lemon law for 23 years in Michigan. He taught Consumer Protection at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law for ten years and wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device both published by Chicago Review Press. Follow him on Twitter before your friends do. Twitter: @stevelehto