Returning goods, fit for their purpose, Sale of Goods

Have you ever brought something from the shops and realised that this product is just not fit for the purpose for which I have brought them. We have all brought a new pair of shoes, worn them and found we are not able to walk in these until such time as they have been broken into. Does this entitle me in law to return them? The following a short article about the relevant law which aims to throw some light on the issue.

Fitness for purpose

Section 14(3) of the Sale of Goods Act 1979 requires the buyer to make known his/her particular purpose. He/she must do so before the contract is made. If so, the goods must be fit for that particular purpose, except where the circumstances show that the buyer does not rely or it is unreasonable for him/her to rely on the seller’s skill and judgement. There are a few points to make here: if you look at cases decided on facts arising prior to 1979, the law was different. The buyer had to show two things, first that he had made known his particular purpose (as now), and that he had relied on the seller’s skill and judgment (no longer needed). Now, if the seller can show non-reliance, he can get out of it.

In the context of the shoes: if I go to the shop and say that I want to purchase a pair of shoes that Marie Claire recommends, and the seller tells me they are of a poor quality. I cannot then take the shoes back after purchasing them and say they are poor quality and that I always relied on the magazine rather than what the seller had told me.

In Slater v Finning [1996] 3 All ER 398, HL(S) a camshaft was supplied by the defendant for use in the claimant’s fishing boat, which failed because of excessive torsion resistance, caused by some unknown external factor. The claimant sued under s.14(3) of the Sale of Goods Act 1979. The claimant’s argued that since they had specified that the camshafts were to be installed in that particular vessel, the defendants were obliged to supply goods fit for use in that vessel with all its peculiarities. The House of Lords agreed with the Court of Session in dismissing the claim: they said since the defendant had not been made aware of the vessel’s peculiarities, they could not exercise the necessary care and skill to deal with them. There was no breach of the implied condition of fitness for purpose.

In the case the consumer had a trawler of a certain type. There are many other trawlers of this type on the sea. The consumer’s trawler was called the Ocean Spray. The crankshaft on the trawler had worn out. It was powered by a caterpillar diesel engine, as all others. The consumer gets in touch with a marine spares supplier, saying he wants a new crankshaft for his ship, namely the Ocean Spray. They send him a crankshaft, which is carefully fitted. The ship goes to sea and the new crankshaft wears out. The ship returns to port. The consumer spends weeks trying to work out what is wrong with the engine, even though it is the correct model. All this time he is making no money. The owners of the ship sue the supplier under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, arguing that the crankshaft was not fit for the particular purpose it was supplied for. It transpired that the reason the crankshaft failed was that when at sea, the ship vibrated due to some imperfection in the hull, which operated on the exterior of the engine and caused the crankshaft to go out of phase and wear out. The consumer’s argument was that he didn’t care why it did not work; he was not aware why it did not work, but wanted a claim under strict liability. The earlier case Griffiths v Peter Conway was reviewed.

In Griffiths v Peter Conway the consumer is a lady who goes into a lady’s shop and asks for a tweed jacket. She is recommended a Harris Tweed jacket. This is very rough tweed. She buys it and gets a case of dermatitis. There is nothing wrong with the jacket. It’s the customer’s skin that is very delicate. The rough material on her skin gave her dermatitis. The defence was that if she had told the seller she had delicate skin, they would not have recommended that particular tweed. The court said there was no liability unless the shop was aware of her delicate skin.

So in Slater, they returned to the decision in Griffiths. The buyer must make known the particular purpose to the seller. If the buyer asked for a crankshaft for the Ocean Spray which is a trawler which suffers from vibrations in the hull, which affect the engine, then the seller would then perhaps be liable.

Coming back to our shoes it seems if you specific about your needs to the sales assistant and it is on the basis of his/her advice that you make your purchase. Then if the advice turns out to be wrong and the goods are not fit for the purpose, then you can return the shoes and demand a refund along with compensation.

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