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Can Customers Sue If You Change Your Return Policy?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 03, 2019 2:36 PM

Outdoor outfitter L.L. Bean had a pretty legendary lifetime return policy: "100% Satisfaction Guarantee. No Conditions. No End Date." That was until last year, when the company told customers that some of them had been "interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent," and treating the return policy "as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years."

Needless to say, some customers weren't too pleased with the change, and a few of those were mad enough to sue. Do they have a legit legal claim?

Unhappy Customers

Not according to U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, who dismissed an attempted class action lawsuit filed by Benjamin Pershouse. The suit, filed in Massachusetts, alleged breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violations of the state's Consumer Protection Act, but Gorton ruled that Pershouse failed to state a plausible reason for financial or other relief.

But Gorton wasn't the only judge to rule against potential L.L. Bean return policy plaintiffs:

  • U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed a California claim filed by William A. Shirley: "Shirley alleges no current, concrete injury. At best, Shirley alleges a hypothetical future harm that would arise if he attempts to return an item he purchased before February 2018, and L.L. Bean denies the return for reasons other than those in the current return policy. Such speculative injuries do not establish standing";
  • U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman dismissed an Illinois claim filed by Victor Bondi, ruling his suit was anticipatory and the new policy "contains no definite, unequivocal manifestation of an intent to no longer honor the old warranty for items purchased before February 9, 2018"; and
  • U.S. District Court Judge Eric Vitaliano dismissed a New York claim filed by Anita Berger, noting Berger had not returned an item to L.L. Bean and her allegations rested on future, unknown events.

Pershouse was the only plaintiff that had unsuccessfully tried to return an L.L. Bean item under the new policy.

Satisfaction Guaranteed?

So, yes, customers could sue if you change your return policy. But finding legal footing for claims over modifications to a policy (so long as those aren't retroactive) will prove difficult. More often, small businesses are targeted for not complying with a return policy that already exists. So, if you do have a return policy, make sure your employees are following it properly.

For help crafting a return policy that doesn't get you into legal hot water, talk to an experienced commercial attorney.

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