Pennsylvania residents often overlook a very powerful tool at their disposal – the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”). In simple terms, the law gives people who buy goods or services for personal, family, or household purposes a way to privately sue businesses for illegal behavior and even for behavior that is deceptive or predatory. The behavior prohibited by this law is broken out into 21 categories. The Pennsylvania legislature was generous enough to make the 21st category broad enough to encompass almost any scenario: “any other fraudulent or deceptive conduct which creates a likelihood of confusion or of misunderstanding.” Perhaps the most attractive part of the law is the ability of people to request the following: up to three times their actual damages, the fees used to pay for their attorney, and the court costs for filing the action. To sum, this law levels the playing field between individual consumers and more powerful businesses.
Let’s step through a simple, yet practical, real world example of how the law can help. John Doe loses his mother to cancer. He wants his mother to have a headstone at her burial plot so he purchases a headstone from Company, Inc. for $2,000. John and Company sign a contract to that effect. John pays Company the $2,000 on the day the contract is signed. The contract states that Company will engrave and install the headstone no later than 3 months after the contract was signed. The contract does not contain a provision related to dispute resolution or legal fees. Nine months later, John still does not have the headstone and cannot reach a resolution with Company. He hires an attorney for $1,500 to file a civil complaint against Company and pays the court costs of $175. For this example, the attorney is filing in the local district court, since the total damages requested are less than $12,000. Since John is filing a complaint pursuant to the UTPCPL, he can ask for $6,000 (three times the actual damages of $2,000), $1500 for his legal fees, and $200 for court costs, totaling $7,700.
Sounds great, right? Yes, to an extent. There are some caveats, however. First, a judgment for triple the actual damages, legal fees, and court costs is the maximum that can be awarded in the court’s discretion. Second, a judgment in district court is always subject to an automatic right of appeal to the county court, rendering the initial judgment worthless. Third, even if there is no appeal, and the judgment becomes a final order, a prevailing Plaintiff at the district level has to execute on that judgment if the Defendant does not pay up. The details of the last two caveats are outside the scope of this article but should always be taken into account when considering this type of action. It should also be mentioned that since businesses typically want to avoid negative publicity as well as paying out treble damages and legal fees to its customers, the UTPCPL is effective in creating settlement agreements between individuals and businesses.
If any of this sounds familiar or you have a related situation involving something you bought or leased for your home or personal use, filing a claim pursuant to the UTPCPL might be a viable option for you. Keep in mind that this article should not be viewed as legal advice and is for informational purposes only. Please consult with an attorney experienced in these matters prior to proceeding. Feel free to call anyone at our office if you are interested in a free consultation.