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Can I Sue TV, Gaming, and Technology Retailers?

You may be able to sue a tech retailer, but it depends on the retailer and the nature of your claim. Our focus here will be on customer complaints against online technology retailers and streaming service providers.

Many online retailers have contracts that require you to resolve major disputes out of court through a process called arbitration but will allow you to file a lawsuit in a small claims court near you. Those that don't have an arbitration requirement typically restrict your right to seek relief to a particular court in a particular state.

In either case, most impose limits on the amount of money you can recover. So it may make the most sense to try to resolve your dispute through informal procedures the retailer has in place first. You will save money. But if your claim is big, consider consulting with a consumer protection lawyer in your state who can better advise you about whether those contracts apply in your situation.

Consumer Complaints Against Tech Retailers

Virtually everyone has or has heard a horror story about an online tech retailer or tech support. You may have bought a Home Theater system from bestbuy.com (Best Buy) that is damaged during installation. You may order a TV from walmart.com (Walmart) that never comes. You may purchase a movie from Amazon Prime Video (Amazon) that doesn't show in proper resolution (or, if you're very unlucky, at all). You may find your cell phone service with Verizon or AT&T stinks where you live. Your download of what should be a famous game, “Get Off My Lawn," might not run.

In fact, there are all sorts of problems you can have with a tech retailer. Some common consumer complaints include:

  • Defective merchandise
  • Short return policy (if any)
  • Poor customer service
  • Product delivery problems (lost packages or delays)
  • Delayed or canceled pre-orders
  • Products damaged during repair
  • Unauthorized credit card charges

Consumer Complaints Against IT Service Providers

And, unfortunately, many people have had problems with IT repair services associated with these retailers. Some common IT complaints include:

  • Lost, stolen, misused, or destroyed data
  • Compromised personal information or identity theft
  • Unqualified service people
  • Failure to fix the problem

Consumer Disputes With Tech Retailers

If you have a consumer dispute with an online tech retailer, your ability to sue depends on which retailer you are talking about. When you create an online account, you need to agree to the website's terms of use. That creates a binding contract between you and the retailer.

Some Retailers Require Arbitration

Some, even most, online tech retailers — for example, Best Buy Stores, Samsung, Walmart, Netflix, Target, AT&T, and Peacock TV (which is owned by NBC) — require you to give up your right to go to court and instead resolve any dispute you may have with them through a process called arbitration. You could find out if you agreed to arbitration by searching for the terms of use, which are displayed on the retailer's website.

Arbitration Process in General

Some people believe that arbitration is faster and cheaper than going to court. Instead of having a judge or a jury hear your claim, you and the retailer hire a person called an arbitrator, almost always a lawyer and most often a former judge, to decide your dispute.

The process is supposed to be streamlined. You essentially submit papers and then have a hearing in front of the arbitrator (sometimes in person, sometimes online through a program like Teams or Zoom). You can call witnesses and submit documents. The other side does the same. The arbitrator considers the materials submitted and then decides. That decision is binding on you and the retailer.

You do not have a jury trial. You give up your right to appeal. You give up any right to bring an action with a group of other people with similar claims (that's called a class-action lawsuit). But you may get your dispute resolved more quickly than you would in court.

Small-claims Court Exception to Arbitration

Most retailers that do require arbitration make an exception and let you bring claims in small claims court. States place limits on the amount you can recover in small claims court. In Rhode Island and Kentucky, it's as low as $2,500. In Delaware and Tennessee, it's as much as $25,000. Depends on where you are.

You would need to check the website of your local court to see if your claim falls within your state's limit. But if it does, small claims court may be an inexpensive, effective way to resolve your dispute with a tech retailer. In most cases, you won't need a lawyer.

Some Retailers Do Not Require Arbitration But Have Other Requirements

There are a few, but an apparently increasing, number of online retailers — Amazon, Apple, Staples, and Verizon are some — that do not require arbitration for you to use their website. That may seem like good news if you have a claim that is too big to be brought in small claims court, but these retailers require you to sue in a particular court and, for some, within a limited time.

Amazon, for example, requires you to file your suit in a court in King County, Washington. Apple requires you to consent to a suit in Santa Clara County, California. Staples requires you to file in Massachusetts within one year. Filing a lawsuit in a faraway state is likely inconvenient at best, so find a good consumer protection lawyer there to discuss the legal issues involved in your situation and, if necessary, handle any court matters for you.

Disclaimer of Warranties

In addition to arbitration, there is the issue of warranties. Generally, a warranty is a promise that the product is what it is supposed to be and will work the way it's intended to. Most tech retailers' terms of use say that your product or service comes with no warranties at all. In other words, when they sell you something, they make no guarantees that the product will work or, in fact, that it is actually the product you wanted to buy. These contract terms make it hard, but not impossible, for a consumer to win an arbitration or a court case.

The Damages You Can Recover are Typically Limited

You also have to consider that most online tech retailers also require you to agree, as a condition of using the website, that any recovery you might get (your damages) is limited. For some retailers, it's extremely limited.

Typically, your recovery is limited to the cost of the product or, for a subscription-based program like a video game or streaming service, the amount you have paid for a particular period of time (often, one year). But in some cases, it may be less than that. Apple, for example, limits your damages to $250. That certainly won't pay for a new iPhone or iPad.

Try To Resolve Your Dispute Informally First

The best approach for you may not be court or arbitration at all. Most online agreements with tech retailers outline an informal dispute resolution process. They typically start with you writing an email or sending a letter that describes your claim.

The retailer then looks into your complaints. They may conduct an internal investigation or ask you for additional information. Once they are finished with their process, they notify you of the outcome of their investigation and whatever decision they may have made. If they think you have been wronged, they might give you a refund or allow you to exchange the product. That way, you don't have to go to court or through arbitration.

If Your Claim Is Big . . .

Your claim may be big enough to justify hiring a lawyer, if for no other reason to see whether your relief is in fact limited under the terms of use. Here's an example. Suppose you are an independent stockbroker who uses their own computer for work. You have years of contact information, client lists, business plans, and other invaluable data on your hard drive.

Suppose your computer needs new antivirus software and, for whatever reason, you are uncomfortable installing it yourself. So you bring it into Best Buy to have the Geek Squad install it instead. They take your computer, but the salesperson neglects to get you to sign the paperwork beforehand (or you are in a state that does not allow a retailer to avoid warranties or limits on liability for certain bad conduct).

. . . And the Conduct Is Really Bad . . .

They do whatever it is that the Geek Squad does. You get your computer back, and press the power button, hoping that it will zoom like the Flash. Unfortunately, not only is it no faster, but your computer data is missing.

Thankfully, you have a backup. You don't want to trust the store you brought your computer into the first time, so you sign in through Geek Squad's remote online service and see if they can restore your data using the backup. And then? They manage to destroy the data on your backup too.

. . . Consult a Lawyer

This isn't just a story. This really happened and resulted in a big lawsuit.

In a situation like this, you would definitely want to consult with clever consumer protection or contract lawyers in your area. A lawyer can help you better understand what your legal rights are and choose whether you want a lawyer to take your case. And make sure that you act quickly. Many terms of service limit the time in which you can bring an arbitration claim, and states have statutes of limitations that limit the time in which you can sue.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to assist with any issues related to consumer transactions.

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