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ALI Consumer Contracts Restatement-What's at Stake

posted by Adam Levitin

The American Law Institute's membership will vote next Tuesday (the 21st) on whether to approve the ALI's Consumer Contracts Restatement project.  Let me recap why you should care about this project:  it opens the door for businesses to use contract to abuse consumers in basically any way they want.  The Restatement would do away with the idea of a "meeting of the minds," as the touchstone of contract law for consumer contracts, and allow businesses to impose any terms they want on consumers, even if the consumers are unaware of the terms and haven't consented to them.  

Under the proposed Restatement, a consumer would be bound by any and all of a business's standard form terms if the consumer (1) assented to a transaction, (2) had notice of the terms, and (3) had a reasonable opportunity to review the terms.  In other words, the consumer would not actually have to know or agree to any of the terms to be bound by them.  The Restatement would replace meaningful assent with a legal fiction of notice.  That opens the door to consumers being deprived of all sorts of rights by contract, starting with arbitration, but then going on the privacy rights and continuing to disclaimer of warranties, etc.  If you think I'm being paranoid, go look at Walmart.com's Terms of Use. Few, if any, of those terms exist when you buy something from Walmart at a storefront, but the cost of larding on an extra term on the Internet is so low, that there's no reason for a business not to bury its whole Christmas wishlist in linked on-line terms and conditions.  

The Restatement strangely believes that courts will somehow police abuses of contract through unconscionability and deception, but this presumes (1) that consumers will litigate in the first place, and (2) that courts will stretch these constrained doctrines to prevent the enforcement of not just outrageous terms, but also quotidian unfair terms.  Do I have a nice bridge to sell you in Brooklyn if you think that's a trade-off that will help consumers....

A bipartisan group of 23 state Attorneys General has recently written publicly opposing the Restatement. That sort of opposition is unprecedented and is a sign that something is seriously amiss with the project. 

So, if you know an ALI member, urge them to attend the Annual Meeting session and vote against the Restatement!

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