The phrase “consumer rights” is thrown around rather freely these days. But what are consumer rights? Are they written down somewhere? Where do they come from? What are the rights?
Consumer rights are generally a reference to a body of law that pertains to things the producers of goods must do to protect customers from harm. These laws have come into existence through a series of legal disputes, and have been shaped by the results of those cases. In a few instances, some states have actually codified regulations that they refer to as “consumer rights” laws, but this is not yet the majority practice, and even these codifications may not cover all of the principles that are generally considered “consumer rights.”
One of the most widely accepted basic consumer rights is the right to safety. In other words, consumers should be able to assume that the products they buy are reasonably safe for their intended purpose when used as directed. Defective safety equipment in cars, excessively flammable home products, and dangerous toys are a few examples of products that were found to be unreasonably safe and helped shape the body of law creating this right. Through decisions holding the makers and sellers of these products liable for injuries resulting from their dangerous designs, this “right” against unsafe products has been discerned.
Another commonly agreed upon right is the right to be informed. This means the right of the consumer to have sufficient information to weigh alternatives and to protect the consumer from false and misleading claims in advertising and labeling practices. This is particularly relevant to products like medications and health care devices. Knowing exactly what the chemicals one puts into their body could do is critical to allowing the consumers to make an informed decision and allowing consumers to harm themselves through the use of a product about which they were not properly informed led to lawsuits that created this “right.” Truth in advertising and laws against unfair competition lend to the legal substance of this right.
A third right is the right to choose. This means having competing goods and services that offer alternatives in terms of price, quality, and service. This is one area of the consumer rights in which there are significant statutory provisions in the form of anti-trust and unfair competition laws. Examples of legal actions that led to this right include the breakup of the Bell telecommunications monopoly, anti-trust actions against companies like Microsoft, and so forth.
Finally, an increasingly recognized right is the right to be heard. This means an assurance that government will take heed of the concerns of consumers and will protect those interests through wisely enacted statutes and administrative regulations. This is more of a politically crafted right than one that has evolved through litigation, as politicians who have not paid attention to the desires of consumers have found themselves with waning support from constituents. One strong example of this right in action has been the rise of alternatively fueled cars. After years of allowing automakers to continue manufacturing inefficient and environmentally damaging vehicles, voters began applying political pressure for more efficient or alternatively fueled vehicles as gas prices began to rise. The result was statutory and regulatory pressure applied to automakers requiring the development of more fuel efficient technologies, like hybrids, electric, and natural gas vehicles. While this is still an area in flux, it is an example of the right to be heard in action.
If you believe that one of these “rights” has been violated and you have been harmed as a result, you may wish to speak to an attorney. You might have a cause of action for harm caused by a violation of your consumer rights and, if you have suffered harm, there is also a chance others have. Even if your individual harm is not that great, the cumulative effect of the harm against the entire consumer base may be staggering. Thus, if you are able to initiate a class action suit, you may be able to effect real change and help prevent others from harm.