There is a consumer protection law in Ohio that is designed to protect all consumers, no matter their socio economic status.
The law relates to consumer transactions, and applies to transactions where a consumer buys goods or services – it could relate to a new refrigerator, it could relate to a used or new car – even a Mercedes Benz. It applies to leases of housing. It applies to franchising transactions. It applies to home construction services. While the law exempts some specific transactions between consumers and suppliers, the breadth of transactions covered under the law are far greater than those transactions excepted. And the law is in addition to any other legal remedy a consumer may have – so, a consumer might also have breach of contract claims, fraud and misrepresentation claims, and professional malpractice claims or other theories of recovery arising out of the same transaction.
The intent of the law is to make sure that people get what they paid for. The law not only seeks to insure that consumers get what they paid for, but, the law allows for a consumer who wins a civil lawsuit to triple their damages in appropriate circumstances. And, if the consumer proves the supplier knowingly committed an act that violates the consumer protection law, the consumer is entitled to request an award of the consumer’s attorney fees and legal expenses incurred in pursuing the claim. The law encourages consumers to pursue claims under the consumer protection law, because in most instances, the consumer’s economic loss, or damages, are not significant enough to justify the legal expense in asserting a lawsuit.
Many well intentioned businesses may think that they are engaged in lawful and upright practices in their consumer transactions or they do not realize their practices are subject to the consumer protection law. Accordingly, they do not make the effort to confirm their practices conform to the law.
The law was created by the Ohio legislature in the early 1970s. The law expressly prohibits suppliers from engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices “in connection with” a consumer transaction, and those acts or practices can occur before, during or after the transaction.
The consumer protection law identifies ten, non-exhaustive, examples of unfair or deceptive acts. One example expressed in the law is when a supplier represents to a consumer when a repair or replacement is needed, when it is not. How often have you, the reader of this blog, thought about whether the air filters really needed replacement in your car when you took it in for scheduled maintenance? Because the law specifically provides a non-exhaustive list, a consumer is allowed to assert a claim under the law for any set of circumstances that consumer believes is an unfair or deceptive act or practice.
The consumer protection law also prohibits what it terms unconscionable acts or practices “in connection with” a consumer transaction, whether those practices occur before, during or after the transaction. The law identifies seven examples of such practices. Here’s one: when the supplier makes a knowingly misleading statement of opinion on which the consumer was likely to rely on to the consumer’s detriment. Did that air filter really need replacement?
The air filter situation is intended to be illustrative, and not intended to provoke folks to seek legal representation the next time they visit their mechanic. The point is that transactions occur every moment of each day that are covered by this consumer protection law.
The law also has empowered the Ohio Attorney General to promulgate rules that are “per se” violations of the consumer protection law, and since the 1970s, there have been scores of such rules. These rules are found in the Ohio Administrative Code. One such example is that it is a deceptive unfair practice, per se, for a supplier to materially misstate or understate the estimated cost of a service. There is no defense to this violation. The only issue will be whether or not the original estimate was materially misstated or understated.
The law also has empowered the Ohio Attorney General to file in its office all court decisions that have found a particular act or practice to be unfair or deceptive. This file is known as the Public Information File at the Attorney General’s office. There are hundreds of court decisions there.
If a consumer proves that a supplier’s acts or practices violate this protection law – one of the seventeen expressly listed situations in the law, the consumer is entitled to recover actual economic damages plus an amount not exceeding five thousand dollars in noneconomic damages – in layman’s terms “annoyance or emotional distress” damages.
If the consumer proves that the supplier’s acts or practices are per se violations – either the Attorney General rules found in the Ohio Administrative Code or in the Public Information File at the Attorney General’s office, the consumer is automatically awarded “treble” – or triple the actual economic loss.
Finally, if the consumer demonstrates that the supplier knowingly committed the act or practice, the consumer is entitle to request attorney fees and expenses. Awards of attorney fees are an exception to the general rule that litigation parties are to pay their own costs whether they win or lose in court. The term “knowingly” is important – the consumer need to show only that the supplier knew that it engaged in the act or practice that was proven to be unfair or deceptive; the consumer does not need to prove that the supplier knew that its acts or practices actually violated the law.
Of course, no blog summary can provide an exhaustive analysis of any legal topic. This summary is intended to highlight the material provisions of the consumer protection law known as the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act.
Please contact a Critchfield attorney for questions or additional information.