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WA Consumer Protection Law Gets a Few More Teeth

May 7, 2009

Seattle, WA – The Washington Attorney General's office says it is getting 25 percent more consumer complaints than it did a year ago. On Wednesday, the governor signed a bill, SSB 5531, to update the state's 20-year-old Consumer Protection Act, and consumer advocates say it's about time.

One of the problems with the old law, according to Melissa Huelsman, a Seattle attorney who specializes in consumer law, was a loophole that made it hard to use, depending on factors like how a business presents itself to the public.

"There have been cases where a consumer made a claim against a company that, because of the manner in which it operated, didn't necessarily have to advertise in order to get business. As a result, the courts found that the company was not liable under the Consumer Protection Act because it didn't advertise to the public."

The bill hit some hurdles in the legislature, where some lawmakers argued that it might encourage more lawsuits. Huelsman disagrees, saying the new law benefits legitimate businesses by discouraging unfair competition from scammers. She's seeing more sophisticated scams, including foreclosure and mortgage come-ons, and thinks a tougher law is overdue. It goes into effect in July.

The new law also allows the court discretion to make a business convicted of wrongdoing pay an increased punitive fine, in addition to actual damages and court costs, of up to $25,000. (For two decades, the cap on punitive damages has been $10,000.) Huelsman says it's not a lot, but it may deter some shady business practices.

"Especially in this economy, when our government agencies have smaller budgets and less money to pursue these things, the only gatekeepers left are private attorneys who are going to bring these kinds of cases, because our state agencies are understaffed and underfunded."

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA