Online auction sites can leave buyers at mercy of sellers

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Dear John,

I recently ordered a pair of sunglasses from an online auction website. When it arrived, it was not at all what I wanted. The color was wrong. They arrived dirty, and when I tried to wipe them clean the lenses fell out. Can I sue the seller, the auction site and the manufacturer to get satisfaction?

Sincerely,

Glaring Glenn


Dear Glenn,

I have stated on many occasions that one of the best things about this country is that access to the legal system is available for most disputes, yours included. That being the case, choosing the details of litigation, who, where, how and why are a different matter entirely.

Primarily, your situation falls under contract law. You are saying you entered into a contract whereby you promised to pay money for a promise to receive sunglasses. A promise for a promise is the basic definition of a contract.

There are many laws related to contracts. Because sunglasses are considered "goods" (a tangible item), the main set of laws concerning your situation is the Uniform Commercial Code, the UCC. The UCC is a set of laws established about 60 years ago to provide some standard among the states for the movement of goods via contracts.

One of the interesting things about it is that it has not been enacted the same way among the states. This makes it lack uniformity, but they have not come up with a new name.

The first rule is to look at the terms of the contract. In your case, you are saying you agreed to pay a certain amount of money in exchange for a certain color of clean sunglasses that have securely fastened frames. You are claiming that you did not receive this.

The second step is to determine whether your contract has a mechanism that can be triggered in the even that "non-conforming goods" are received.

Many people speculated that the internet shopping boom would create a need to expand the UCC to understand the complexity created by this new means of commerce. Interestingly, they thought the same thing when telegraph, telephone and faxes became common.

What was discovered was that the need to update the UCC was unnecessary. Rather, the only thing that changed was the number of transactions governed by it.

Essentially, more people were participating in interstate commerce than ever before. One consequence of this increased commerce was a larger number of disputes.

In response, many online websites created user-agreements regarding the sale of products via their portals. These agreements often absolve the websites of any liability. In exchange for this immunity, they have established procedures for resolving disputes. Many of these procedures prohibit taking of legal action until all dispute resolution procedures have been exhausted.

I encourage you to attempt to learn what these procedures are. Many of them are more favorable than those you would find in the UCC. The UCC was written and supported mainly by larger companies. As such, it tends to favor the seller.

For example, your seller may be able to say that the product arrived at the post office as ordered and that changes occurred along the way. It would be your burden to show this is not true, which may be easy to do with regard to color but not the cleanliness or lens condition.

I have bought many things online in the past 15 years. In my experience, the best way to prevent disappointment, which does happen to me from time to time, is to thoroughly research the facts, terms and know who I am doing business with.

To put this in perspective, I would rather buy a package of meat from the supermarket than from a guy selling it from the trunk of his car.

Good luck.

John

John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only. Have a question? Ask John at askjohn@wwub.com.

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