Never underestimate the power of fine print. A North Carolina based federal court recently demonstrated the truth of this maxim and dismissed a couple’s fraud claim against the CertainTeed Corporation. It’s especially true when the evidence demonstrates that plaintiffs actually read the fine print before agreeing to the deal.
CertainTeed manufactures building materials, including vinyl siding. Certain Teed also maintains a Web site, where it offers a search tool that allows customers to search for contractors in their area, thereby facilitating the connection between potential customers and builders. CertainTeed list contractors on its website after the contractor completes training courses on the proper installation of CertainTeed products, including vinyl siding, trim, fencing, and decking. After successfully completing certain courses, contractors receive a personalized certificate and are listed on CertainTeed's Web site under the designation of "Master Craftsman."
Consumers can search the listed professionals on CertainTeed's website by name or by the product in which they are certified. To view their search results, consumers must "Accept" the search tool's "Terms and Conditions," which state, among other conditions, the following:
Although we take certain steps to examine the credentials of our listed service professionals, CertainTeed makes no guarantees or representations regarding the skills or representations of such service professional or the quality of the job that he or she may perform for you if you elect to retain their services. CertainTeed does not endorse or recommend the services of any particular service professional.
In early 2014, Timothy and Angela Solums considered various contractors to install new vinyl siding on their home. As a part of their search, they contacted a building contractor called Superior Home Improvement. The owner of Superior Home Improvement, Donald Follett, visited the plaintiffs' home to provide a consultation and price quote, and he "strongly recommended CertainTeed's product." Follett told the plaintiffs that he was a certified Master Craftsman for vinyl siding and that they could verify his credential on CertainTeed's Web site.
According to the Solums, they decided to hire Follett and his company based on his CertainTeed master craftsman certification. And as you might have guessed, things didn’t go smoothly. According to the Solums’ complaint, Superior Home Improvement purchased CertainTeed vinyl siding for use on plaintiffs' home, but Superior Home failed to properly install the product. Thus, plaintiffs had to hire a second contractor to fix the siding on their home, incurring additional costs. The Solums sued CertainTeed based on CertainTeed’s alleged fraud. Specifically, in the Solums’ view, CertainTeed represents that it "examines the credentials of the service professionals ... it endorses," that "Master Craftsmen Successfully complete a program course to become certified," and that "only advanced building professionals who demonstrate a high level of knowledge and ability to install CertainTeed building products earn this Master Craftsman status." Plaintiffs allege that Certain Teed "purposely misleads consumers into believing that the Master Craftsman certification is more prestigious than in actuality," and that Certain Teed does not examine the credentials of service professionals that it lists as Master Craftsmen "in any meaningful manner."
CertainTeed filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. The court granted it. In part, the court found that the Sloums could not have reasonably relied on the alleged representations based on the disclaimer -- "CertainTeed makes no guarantees or representations regarding the skills or representations of such service professional or the quality of the job that he or she may perform for you" – plainly visible on the Web site. And the Solums’ very own complaint demonstrated they’d read the disclaimer. One of the alleged misrepresentations set out in their complaint came directly from the disclaimer. In addition, the Solums themselves completed the course requirements and became “master craftsmen” themselves.
This case demonstrates how effective disclaimer language can ward off fraud claims. It’s especially true when there’s evidence that the user actually read it. Keep that in mind when designing your Web sites!