A plaintiff learned you can’t believe everything you hear on TV recently, when a California appellate court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of a false advertising case against the online travel service Priceline. The complaint claimed Priceline’s commercials didn’t tell him he’d need to pay a resort fee to stay at a Trump Resort in Las Vegas. The trial court found the charge lacked merit. And the court of appeals agreed.
Michael Freeman used Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” feature to book a stay at the fabulous Trump Resort. The feature offers deeply discounted rooms – but adds an air of adventure. The customer commits to the room without knowing the precise property. The court describes it this way: “[a] customer making an NYOP hotel booking on the Priceline Web site requests a hotel by selecting the dates of stay, the general location of the hotel and the quality or ‘star rating’ of the hotel. The customer then names the price he or she is willing to pay for a hotel that fits the selected requirements.” Once the customer enters that information, a “contract page” pops up that shows the “total charges” the customer will pay if the named price is accepted.
The “total charges” consist of the desired price multiplied by the number of nights, and “taxes and service fees.” But in bold blue font, immediately below the “total charges” are the words “Important Information.” Below that line are several bullet points, including one that explains certain properties may charge mandatory fees above and beyond the “name your own price” – including resort fees. At the bottom of the contract page is a box where customers place their initials to signify they have read and accept the terms. Customers cannot proceed to book and pay for the room until they initial the box.
Freeman named $89 as his price (have to assume this guy did not go the high roller tables) and booked the room for two nights. His “total charges” came to $209.68. But Freeman was surprised to learn at check out that he’d been charged a $15 per night resort fee. Apparently, that $30 upcharge was more than Freeman could stand. He sued Priceline, alleging that it violated the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act and the Unfair Competition Law. Freeman then moved for summary judgment – arguing that he was not only entitled to win, but there was no need for a trial. Priceline countered with its on summary judgment motion.
The trial court found, and the appellate court agreed, that Freeman had no viable claim. According to the court, Priceline adequately disclosed the prospect of additional charges, and Freeman accepted those terms. The fact the TV commercials didn’t spell out all the fine print was irrelevant. Freeman could only use the “name your own price” feature by going online. And he couldn’t book the room without reviewing the terms. So whatever William Shatner said or didn’t say, it simply didn’t matter.
The commercials may have gotten Freeman to the site, but once there, he was responsible for reading the terms. In the words of Shatner’s former co-star Leonard Nimoy, “it’s logical.”