An appeals court rejected on Thursday the case of Roy Pearson, who famously sued a Washington, D.C., dry cleaner for $54 million for losing a pair of pants. Pearson claimed that a sign reading “Satisfaction Guaranteed” was deliberately misleading. Does “satisfaction guaranteed” have any legal meaning?
Yes. False advertising laws, both on the state and federal level, distinguish between deliberately misleading material claims that can be objectively proved untrue and “puffery”—subjective claims about a product or service that can’t be measured. For example, if you say your hot dogs are the “cheapest in town” and that’s not true, then a customer might have grounds to sue. But you can claim to sell the “best hot dogs in town” without worrying about lawsuits. Courts generally consider “satisfaction guaranteed” a material claim—not puffery—and therefore subject to challenge.
What determines satisfaction? Most courts define it as whatever a “reasonable person” would expect from a product or service. (Sometimes legal teams will even conduct surveys to figure out what reasonable customers think.) In the Pearson case, the trial court interpreted “satisfaction” to mean that “if there is a problem with drycleaning, laundry or alterations, the cleaner should try to fix it, and if the problem cannot be fixed, the cleaner should make reasonable compensation to the customer for the value of the damaged item.” (Read the decision here [PDF].) In other words, pay them the cost of the clothing—not $54 million.
The difference between material claims and puffery is not always obvious. In 1957, the Federal Trade Commission won a case against a man who sold weaving kits and claimed that weaving was “easily learned.” The court found that this statement wasn’t just innocent puffery—it was “incorrect.” Yet in 1949, a U.S. District Court found that the word original, as used to describe Anheuser-Busch beers, was meaningless and thus qualified as puffery. The distinction depends on the case, but in general a statement is deemed material if it plays a role in the consumer’s decision to buy the product—or, in legal speak, if he or she “relies” on the vendor’s promise.
Of course, the more explicit your promise, the more vulnerable you are if you violate it. It’s one thing to say “satisfaction guaranteed.” It’s another to offer an “unconditional” guarantee, which is how Pearson interpreted the dry cleaner’s sign. (The court disagreed.) For example, L.L. Bean promises, “Our products are guaranteed to give 100 percent satisfaction in every way.” In keeping with that promise, L.L. Bean accepts returns at any time, for any reason.
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Explainer thanks James Astrachan of Astrachan Gunst Thomas, Derek Emge of Emge & Associates, and Kimberly A. Kralowec of Schubert Jonckheer Kolbe & Kralowec LLP.