Your Money or Somebody’s Life

Imagine some twisted sci-fi show where a team of ninja hitmen came to your home when some shiny iToy you bought that carried a “lifetime warranty” broke. They came to fulfill the warranty. Get it? Preposterous?

Lawprof Mike Dorf, in a post that I like to characterize as “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies,” argues the meaning of a “lifetime warranty.”

But what if the advertisement or product packaging does not specify the life that the warranty references?  Let’s consider a few possibilities:

(1) The product is guaranteed for the lifetime of the purchaser.  That’s absurd.  Why should the duration of the guarantee depend on how much longer the purchaser lives?  Should I give the charger as a gift to one of my daughters and then ask her to loan it to me to use during my lifetime, on the theory that then the warranty will last longer?  Preposterous.

Aside from the fact that a rhetorical question isn’t an affirmative argument and therefore proves nothing, there is an answer to Dorf’s question: because the purchaser’s interest is in his ability to use it for however long the initial purchaser chooses to enjoy the item.

There is nothing absurd about expecting an item to last, even though that flies in the face of contemporary expectations. I have things that are a hundred years old, even more, and they work great, just as they did when new. They were built to last, and the lasted. Yet, today Dorf thinks it’s absurd to expect anything to last long enough to cover the human lifespan? He’s been well-trained to have low expectations.

Nobody forces a manufacturer to offer a lifetime warranty. They do so for one of two reasons. Either they have created a thing in which they have enormous faith in its quality, or they are playing the purchaser for a fool. Dorf thinks the former is “preposterous.” I feel sad for him.

But his post addresses the legal significance of a lifetime warranty rather than the quality of a product, or lack there of.

(2) The product is guaranteed for its own lifetime.  That’s even more absurd.  If the product breaks immediately, then it’s dead, and so it’s lifetime is over, and so the manufacturer is not in breach of the warranty.  And yet despite that absurdity, I’ve been told by someone more knowledgeable than I am about contracts law that some courts have interpreted “lifetime warranty” to mean just that, at least in other contexts.

At least we agree that this is inherently absurd. While Dorf says he’s “been told” that some courts have interpreted “lifetime warranty” to mean that it’s warranted until it fails, he offers no support for this claim. Having no doubt that there are judges somewhere who would reach such an absurd result, I don’t doubt that it could happen, but Dorf’s being told about it (see, I told you it was a “birthin’ no babies” post) isn’t good enough to take seriously.

(3) The product is guaranteed for the lifetime of some other product with which it is sold or intended to be used.  This seems like the natural meaning if, say, the tires on a new car come with their own separate “lifetime warranty.”  Presumably the warranty is good so long as the rest of the car works. The FTC reg I quoted above comes with two illustrations both involving such examples: a muffler sold with a car and a battery sold with a car.  In those illustrations the advertisements specify that the car’s lifetime provides the measuring rod, but I suppose one might infer that even in the absence of such specifications, a “lifetime warranty” for a part of a car is guaranteed for the life of the car.

Why does this seem like the “natural meaning?” Why is Dorf just presuming something makes sense rather than testing it?  Using three examples (because three examples involving car resolves all contract issues?), Dorf tries to make his point. He fails each time. First, tires come with cars, but are also purchased separately. Some people decide to change the tires on the car because they want cooler (or less cool, in my case) tires. Does that mean they have no warranty when put on a different car?

Mufflers, on the other hand, are not like tires, but an integral part of a whole. Once a muffler has been installed, it isn’t easily transferred, and no manufacturer reasonably foresees it’s being taken off one car and put on another. The battery is too obvious for words, and that’s why batteries have their own separate warranty, like tires. Has Dorf ever owned a car?

(4) The product is guaranteed for the expected lifetime of the product.  This begins to make a little bit of sense and it is the meaning ascribed to the phrase by a website I found, but the sparse case law I discovered by tooling around in the state case database did not generally adhere to this definition–and for good reason.  What is the “expected lifetime” of the product?

The love of vagary is the root of all confusion. While this might make sense to many, they would be awfully miffed when they learned that their “expected lifetime” wasn’t the same as what the customer service rep in Manila says is the expected lifetime. Consumers will not be happy.

What’s troubling about this post, and its ramifications as if a law professor has given serious thought to the meaning of a “lifetime warranty” and everyone from manufacturer to retailer to customer service rep who calls herself “Susan,” is how it will be thrown in your face when the product you overpaid for has lost its shine.  You bought it with a “lifetime warranty,” it failed a day, week, year later, and you demand redress.  “Nope,” you’re told in a broken English accent, “Dorf says you get squat because it was unreasonable for you to expect our piece of crap to last longer than ten minutes, stupid Americain.”

While it may be that Dorf is correct that American courts have failed to confer a consistent interpretation on such puffery as “lifetime warranty,” the only clear and correct interpretation is that the words mean exactly what the manufacturer meant them to mean when enticing a consumer to purchase its goods.

There can be no doubt that the message the maker meant to convey to the buyer is that the good will last as long as the buyer, and there is absolutely no basis to undermine the buyer’s benefit of the bargain. Having sold its product with the deliberate promise that it would last as long as its original purchaser chose to use it, the manufacturer should be liable for fulfilling that promise.

It’s hard? It could be a long time? Tough nuggies. You made the promise, pal, and it’s your duty to keep it. If you don’t want to, then don’t make it. But then you don’t get to entice buyers with a false promise, even though Mike Dorf has no problem with makers deceiving buyers.

And on behalf of all consumers everywhere, I have one thing to say to Mike Dorf: keep your nose out of it.

7 comments on “Your Money or Somebody’s Life

  1. Jack

    Maybe it’s because I am not a lawyer, but when I hear “Lifetime Warranty” it simply means that as long as the company who made the product still exists, if their product breaks they will fix it or offer some kind of support to me or whoever currently owns the product. It doesn’t matter how old I am, whether I “lend it to my kid for a longer ‘life’ warranty”, who I sell it to, or if ninja’s show up at my house to “permanently void my warranty” – if the company is around, they stand by their product.

    I have a cast iron skillet that is well over 100 years old and will probably be even better in another 100 years from now – why is the idea of durable goods so absurd to some people? My fiancee is big into cooking and cookware truly has lifetime warranties. I dropped a $120 pot and put a big dent in it – they replaced it no problem because they said it shouldn’t have dented from dropping it (and even paid for shipping to boot) – they stood by their product. Either you stand by your products or you don’t put “Lifetime Warranty” on it. If you put “Lifetime Warranty” on it because all the other cool companies were doing it and you didn’t really mean it, you said it best: tough nuggies. You should have to go out of business before you get out of fulfilling your warranty.

    1. SHG Post author

      While I would agree with you conceptually, the problem today is the new companies who are the “biggest thing ever” seem to burn bright, then flame out overnight. Think about how many high-flying companies came into being, were the toast of the town, and then, poof, disappeared over the past decade. It’s not like the old days when solid businesses were expected to be there forever.

      1. Jack

        But if a company flames out, regardless of what the warranty meant – whether it was for the lifetime of your youngest child, whether it was until ninjas cut your body in two with a katanas, or whether it was just while the company lasted – it isn’t going to be honored because there is nobody left to honor it. I think that is good thing though – a company who stands by their product or goes out of business trying.

        Of course there are those fly-by-night companies who come in and promise their sharpest sheetrock-cutting knives, stretchiest expandable hoses, and warmest dress-blankets in an assortment of colors will last forever and come with a lifetime warranty as a gimmick when they have no intention of being in business 30 seconds after your purchase – but really there is nothing you can do about that. Scammy companies like that existed since the dawn of man.

        1. SHG Post author

          Of course if the company goes under, there will be no one to honor the warranty (though sometimes companies get sold on the way down), but it has to do with the duty that goes with making a product. The company claiming a lifetime warranty needs to know that it will be held to honor that promise and what the promise will mean should the company survive. If the promise is that a purchaser will have a working product for so long as he lives, and provided there is a company around to honor that promise, then that’s the promise that must be kept.

  2. A Nagy

    Lifetime of the company makes the most sense, unless it’s obvious what it’s supposed to mean like the car muffler example and even this should be spelled out. Even from the companies prospective lets assume you have a product that said lifetime warranty from 100 years ago, from a company that still exists today. It would probably be in their best interests to honor it just imagine the PR campaign you could run.

    The whole thing about the company going out of buisness and quick in and out companies yeah that’s an issue, but it’s also one of the reasons why brand name.

    1. SHG Post author

      I can understand a company that survives for 100 years saying that the warranty died with the original purchaser, even if they prefer to honor it from a PR standpoint. A company that sticks around for 500 years isn’t obliged to give a 500 year warranty by offering a lifetime warranty. But the point is that it has to be at least the lifetime of the buyer and not some amorphous nonsense about the “reasonably expected lifetime of a product of that sort.”

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