Lesson 12: Consumer and Business Contracts Differ

From The Business of Consuming section of How You Can Avoid Legal Land Mines by Joseph S. Lyles (2003)

A lesson from Samuel’s case in Lesson 61 below is that the law considers the signers of business contracts to be on equal standing from the point of view of their knowledge and sophistication. While that is often untrue, it is, nonetheless, the way the courts look at business contracts. One the other hand, if the contract is a consumer contract, one prepared by a business for use in a transaction with a consumer, then the courts look at it differently, usually with the favor towards the consumer.

The law requires that consumer contracts be fair. For example, consumer contracts must have certain terms written in bolder, larger print, such as those relating to waivers of warranties and arbitration. And generally the courts look at the education and sophistication of the consumer, as well as the circumstances of the contract signing, to determine whether it is fair to hold the consumer to the terms of the contract.

In other words, the courts tend to uphold the fine print in business-to-business contracts, but not necessarily in business-to-consumer contracts. Also, state and federal statutes regulate the contents and form of consumer contracts, in an effort to make them fair.

Any businessperson who deals with consumer contracts should have all paperwork reviewed by an attorney with a good working knowledge of this area of the law. Even letters written to consumers to collect debts have to be written with certain language.

The Lesson: Judges are more likely to try to save a consumer from contractual land mines, but are less likely to rescue business people from such traps for the unwary.