In most purchases, "the deal" will consist of both small parts and big parts.
The easiest way to think about the difference between big and small parts is to look at the comparative monetary value of one part versus another. For example, if the purchase is of a house, then the roof of the house would plainly be more valuable than, say, one of the doorknobs on one of the house's bathroom doors.
Or...suppose the purchase is of a car: the engine of the car would plainly be more valuable than the car's rear-view mirror.
The cost to you of small misrepresentations versus big misrepresentations
With this difference in mind, to what extent would it matter if the salesperson who sold you the car lied to you about the car's rear-view mirror, at least, in comparison with the extent to which it would matter if the lie had instead been about the car's engine? (The line of questioning applies to false advertisements, to be clear.)
In making this comparison, we might reasonably conclude that the salesperson's lie about the engine would matter more than the salesperson's lie about the rear-view mirror. Naturally, if you purchased a car after the car salesman told you that the engine was brand new, and that engine later turned out to be twenty-years old and on its last leg, you would probably far more upset than you would be if the salesman's lie you later discovered had instead been about some aspect of the car's rear-view mirror.
Why is this? Because the salesman's lie about the engine--the higher value part--would cost you far more than the salesman's lie about the rear-view mirror.
Is a small lie important enough to be considered an unfair or deceptive trade practice?
Many states recognize this difference by writing their consumer protection legislation in a way that deems smaller lies to be not important enough to be considered "unfair and deceptive trade practices" (i.e. for the purpose of prevailing on a claim under the relevant consumer protection statute).
Put another way, in many states, when a salesperson lies to you only about a small part of the deal, you might not have a good case against that seller for unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Even small lies matter in Washington state
Washington state is different, however, as the Washington State Supreme Court's opinion in the case we will discuss today shows.
To prevail on a Consumer Protection Act claim in Washington, the plaintiff need not prove that the part of the deal that was lied about was large, or valuable, or even important in the legal sense (i.e. "material" to use the court's favored term). Rather, a lie can be considered unfair and deceptive in Washington even when it's about only a small part of the deal.
Unfair or deceptive acts or practices are unlawful under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act
RCW 19.86.020 provides that:
Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby declared unlawful.
The five essential elements of a claim under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act
To prevail on a claim under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act (RCW 19.86.020), the plaintiff must move prove five elements:
- There was an unfair or deceptive act or practice;
- That occurred in trade or commerce;
- That affected the public interest;
- That plaintiff suffered damages; and
- That plaintiff’s damages were caused by the unfair or deceptive business practice.
When you're asking whether a small lie matters for the purpose of a RCW 19.86.020 claim, you're usually testing the nature of the first element (as listed above).
The Washington State Supreme Court confirms that even small lies matter under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act
As the Washington State Supreme Court's opinion in Young v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. shows, even a lie about a relatively unimportant (i.e. "non-material") part of the deal could be considered an unfair and deceptive trade practice under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act.
Background facts of the case
In 2013, Duane Young bought a new, 2014 Toyota Tacoma from a car dealership in Washington by putting down a deposit. Before Young came to pick up the truck from the dealership, however, Toyota realized that Toyota had inadvertently advertised that the truck had a certain feature it did not in fact have. A brief investigation of the error revealed that 147 new, 2014 Toyota Tacomas that had been affected by this error had already been sold. One of those 147 trucks was Young's.
On its own initiative, Toyota took about a month to correct the error contained in Toyota's advertisements. Toyota then identified each purchaser who had been affected by the false advertisement and offered to pay $100 to each purchaser to compensate for the error.
It was only a "small" misrepresentation, though
Here's the thing, though. The error pertained to the truck's rear-view mirror. Inadvertently, Toyota's advertisements had falsely stated that these trucks came equipped with temperature gauge to display the temperature outside the truck. At trial, Toyota testified that Toyota's cost to install this temperature gauge during manufacturing would have been $10; and the court subsequently seemed to adopt $10 as the value of the feature. This meant that Toyota's $100 offer was worth ten times the "loss of value" suffered by each purchaser of these 147 trucks.
Young declined Toyota's $100 offer and instead sued under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act.
Plaintiff loses at trial
The trial court ruled in Toyota's favor, however, explaining that, among other things, "Young had failed to prove the first element of his CPA claim because he had not shown Toyota’s false statements of fact about the vehicle had the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the public."
Plaintiff loses on appeal
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling, but highlighted a slightly different reason:
[T]he majority below held that to be unfair or deceptive for purposes of the CPA, a misstatement of fact must be material. The Court of Appeals concluded the display, with an estimated value of $10, was financially immaterial to a $36,000 transaction and Young had not established it was material in any other way.
So, there's the question about whether a lie can be considered unfair and deceptive in Washington if it's only about a small part of the deal.
That said, although Judge George Fearing concurred with the appellate court's decision, he wrote a separate opinion, in which he noted that "no Washington State Supreme Court case had held that to be unfair or deceptive under the CPA, an affirmative misrepresentation of fact must be material."
This eventually led to the Washington State Supreme Court granting review of the case.
The Washington State Supreme Court reviews the case
In its opinion, the supreme court did not mince words:
[M]ateriality is not a necessary component of the first element. While we have mentioned materiality in passing, generally in noting that a deceptive framing or omitted fact was sufficiently material to establish the element, we have never found materiality was necessary as a matter of law. We specifically reject that proposition now.
(Remember, here, the word "material" means something like "important," as in, important enough to have potentially influenced the purchaser's decision.)
So there you have it. In Washington, under the Consumer Protection Act, even small lies matter, because an act or practice can be unfair or deceptive even if it pertains to a non-material part of the deal.