John Roska: 'Full,' 'limited' warranties differ in scope, rights
Q: When you buy something, do you have to return the registration card to get the warranty coverage? When I don't send in those cards, I worry that I won't have any warranty coverage if I have a problem. Does it make any difference?
A: It depends on whether it's a "full" or "limited" warranty under federal law. Full warranties can't be conditioned on returning a registration card; limited warranties can be. But since a full warranty is probably the only kind that'll do you any good, if a full warranty was offered, you get it even if you don't return the card.
The federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act regulates written warranties on any consumer product manufactured after July 4, 1975. (Implied warranties aren't written.) No seller or manufacturer is required to give you a written warranty of any kind, but if they do, you've got certain rights.
The act says that a written warranty must be labeled "full" or "limited." To qualify as "full," a warranty must promise you three basic R's: repair, replacement or refund. The repairs and replacement have to be free, and the replacement or refund must occur "after a reasonable number of attempts" to repair.
Basically speaking, any written warranty that doesn't offer to repair, replace or refund isn't a full warranty. It's then a "limited" warranty, and has to be clearly labeled as such.
The confusing thing about full warranties is that they can be full, but limited in certain ways. Most importantly, the duration of a full warranty can be limited. A good example is a new car sale, which usually involves a "full" warranty containing the three R's, but is also limited to something like "five years or 50,000 miles."
Full warranties can also limit your right to recover consequential damages if something goes wrong. Consequential damages are losses caused by a product's failure, like spoiled food from a broken refrigerator, or lost business from a computer crash. That limitation must be "clear and conspicuous," and on the front of the warranty.
So, if you're offered a full warranty, you don't have to worry. You're covered, even if you didn't register or return a card. Registering can help prove that you bought something — which can help if the full warranty is limited to the original purchaser — but it can't be a requirement for warranty coverage.
And you probably don't have to worry about not registering a limited warranty. Limited warranties, precisely because of their limitations, often don't cover much.
Finally, separate from the "full" or "limited" written warranties that merchants or manufacturers can offer, there's another important warranty that's implied in most sales. That's the "implied warranty of merchantability." (Somewhat obviously, implied warranties don't have to be in writing.)
Among other things, "merchantable" goods are "of fair average quality," and are "fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used."
The implied warranty of merchantability is the fundamental principle that prevents merchants from selling complete junk, and getting away with it.
John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.