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What is the law in relation to damaged goods?

The rights of a buyer in relation to damaged goods depend upon a number of factors including whether the goods were damaged before they left the seller or whether they were damaged during transit.

Goods damaged before they left the seller

Where goods are damaged before they leave the seller the rights of the buyer will depend upon what the parties agreed at the time when the contract was made, what information the seller gave the buyer about the goods and whether the buyer inspected the goods before the contract was made.

What was agreed?

An agreement for the sale of goods will include both “express terms” (those terms which were specifically agreed between the parties) and “implied terms” (terms implied by conduct or the law).  

In an agreement for the sale of goods it will be an express term that the seller will sell to the buyer the goods and that the buyer will pay the seller an agreed amount for the goods. It may be an express term of the contract that the goods were new and not damaged. If that is the case where the goods are damaged before they leave the seller the seller will be liable for the damage.  

An agreement may contain certain other terms implied by the law.  

The Sale of Goods Act 1979, as amended, implies into a contract for the sale of goods certain terms relating to the quality of the goods being sold where such goods are sold in the course of a business. Where goods are sold during the course of a business they must be of “satisfactory quality”. Damaged goods are unlikely to be of satisfactory quality.  

The Sale of Goods Act 1979, as amended, also implies into a contract for the sale of goods a term that the goods will correspond with any description given of them. This applies whether the goods are sold by a business or an individual.  

As most buyers of goods on eBay rely on the description of the goods given by the buyer as it is generally not practical to inspect the goods prior to a contract being made this provision will assist most buyers of damaged goods bought on eBay.  

If the goods were described by the seller as being damaged, however, the seller will only be liable for any additional damage sustained since the contract was made or any damage which was not contained in the description. If for example, the seller of a damaged car stated that the car had a damaged wing mirror but omitted to mention that the bumper was also damaged, the seller will not be liable for the damaged wing mirror but will be liable for the damaged bumper unless the buyer inspected the car before the contract was made and knew or ought to have known that the bumper was also damaged.  

Similarly, if the seller of a damaged car stated that the car had a damaged wing mirror and after the contract was made the car was involved in a further accident, the seller will not be liable for the damaged wing mirror but will be liable for the subsequent damage to the car unless the parties have agreed otherwise, for example, the buyer may still be prepared to buy the car but at a lower price.

What rights does the buyer have where the seller is responsible for the damage?

Where a seller breaches the terms of a contract he is responsible for the damage. In such circumstances the buyer has the right, within a “reasonable time”, to ask for his money back. What amounts to a reasonable time will depend on the nature of the goods.  If, for example, the goods are of a nature that they would not be used for some time and the buyer could not reasonably be expected to notice the damage until that time a “reasonable time” is likely to be longer than for goods normally used on a daily or immediate basis.  

The Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002 also gives consumers (non-businesses) a right to a repair or replacement for damaged or faulty goods.

Goods damaged in transit

The rights of a buyer in relation to goods damaged in transit will largely depend upon what was agreed at the time when the contract was agreed.  

Where goods are damaged by a third party, for example by the Royal Mail, the seller is normally liable for the damage.  

However, if the parties agreed at the time when the contract was made that the seller would not be liable for any damage caused during transit then the seller will not be liable for such damage. Quite often sellers exclude or limit liability for goods damaged in transit in their standard terms and conditions of sale (commonly referred to as the “small print”). 

If the seller used an insured postage service then the seller may well be able to make a claim against such insurance. However, this does not relieve the seller of any obligations he may have to the buyer. For example, where a seller is obliged to give a buyer a refund he must do so within a reasonable time and cannot delay in giving the refund by reason of him awaiting payment from insurers. 

If the seller is not liable for the damage the buyer may have a claim against the third party. The liability of postal carriers and couriers is often limited and, therefore, the buyer may not be able to recover the full amount paid for the goods from the third party. 

If the buyer collected the goods from the seller and damaged them himself during transit then the seller will not be liable for the damage.

If the seller is liable for the damage are they also responsible for the cost of returning the goods?

If the seller is liable for the damage to the goods then the seller is also responsible for the cost of the goods being returned to or collected by him or the cost of disposing of the goods by the buyer where he agrees to that.

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