Lawyers representing Ryerson, Inc., a metal roofing company, were called upon recently to defend the company against the claims of two homeowners who alleged that Ryerson failed to honor the warranty on its roofing system and that such failure violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act ("VCPA"). The lawyers argued that Ryerson could not be liable under the VCPA because all statements made in its warranty were statements of opinion rather than factual misrepresentations. The Eastern District of Virginia disagreed.
The VCPA was enacted to promote fair and ethical standards of dealings between suppliers and the consuming public. (See Va. Code § 59.1-197). It contains provisions that make it unlawful for a supplier to misrepresent that goods and services are of "a particular standard, quality, grade, style, or model," and prohibits suppliers from using "any other deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, or misrepresentation in connection with a consumer transaction." (See Va. Code § 59.1-200(A)(6), (14)).
In Gottlieb v. Ryerson, the Gottliebs (according to the Complaint) hired a contractor to install a Ryerson steel roof on their gazebo and house. The roof came with a 20-year warranty, which assured the Gottliebs that the warranty was "low-risk, no-nonsense, [and] ironclad." The warranty materials also stated that Ryerson would honor the warranty "at any time and as often as needed within the 20-year period" from the installation date, and that the warranty entitled the homeowners to "complete repair or replacements of any covered problem--freight and labor included."
Approximately 10 years into the warranty, the Gottliebs claim the roof began to peel away and show signs of deterioration. They claim they placed several calls and sent several emails to Ryerson to discuss the roof issues, but say their attempts to communicate were largely ignored. A roofing contractor was hired to determine the cause, and he concluded that the finish coat had failed and that the roof needed to be replaced. Ryerson refused to replace the roof.
The court noted that "puffing" will usually not constitute fraud because "statements of this nature are generally regarded as mere expressions of opinion which cannot rightfully be relied upon" when the parties deal on equal terms. The court agreed with Ryerson that its statement that the warranty was "low-risk, no-nonsense, ironclad" was a mere statement of opinion and not actionable. On the other hand, however, the plaintiffs stated a plausible claim for relief under the VCPA because the statements that the warranty would be honored "at any time and as often as needed within the 20-year period" and that it would cover "complete repair or replacements of any covered problem" were unequivocal, specific, and factual.