Read the Fine Print: Terms of Use, Releases and More

Plenty has been said about the nearly encyclopedic length of a website’s Terms of Use. With all jokes aside, it is a growing problem that businesses have begun burying unique business-consumer conditions into these agreements, including Releases, that limit the company’s legal liability, and rely heavily on consumers not caring and/or not reading them. In short, you should not need a lawyer to understand whether you should accept a website’s discount coupon or help from a business when your product is not working properly. When it comes to that last situation, though, it is critical that you are careful before you possibly sign your rights away.

First and foremost, Terms of Use and Releases can be an everyday part of doing business and they are not just a way to trick people. In complete transparency, the website you are on right now has its own Terms of Use. This is due to very specific requirements that lawyers be clear on when representation begins for a client. Without reading line by line, rest assured we do not sell the information of people who contact us for legal assistance, and we definitely do not take advantage of the trust prospective clients place in us by providing us their personal contact details. While we will continue to reach out until told otherwise, we have no interest in alienating or making uncomfortable those who contact us. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for companies and organizations you may come across online.

When signing Terms of Use or a Release, here are some red flags to look out for:

  • Open-ended agreements that provide almost universal approval to the company to do with your information or data as they see fit
  • Agreements for simple services or programs with no ‘data’ utilization that still require sharing of data or personally identifying info (which undoubtedly is then resold to other companies). In short, the Terms of Use should fit what you are using the company or product for. Would you find it odd for the Terms of Use for a bicycle that require you to provide your pet’s favorite dog food? Of course! Then why do so many people agree to share their location, contacts and more for a flashlight application?
  • In the same respect, is it worth having your pictures used by the company as they see fit? Some Terms of Use may make your likeness up for grabs and there have been surprising. This also applies for a random stranger coming up to you while on vacation and asking for a quick picture – check out this story of how one girl’s ‘paid modeling work’ turned into a massive stock photo library used for all types of products worldwide to see just how quickly a Release can go beyond what you expected!
  • Does the agreement feature ALL CAPS and almost literally make no sense? That may be intentional to make reading the document difficult
  • Unexpected, or unnecessary, contact: a news article from 2014 highlighted Terms of Use from Bank of America that allowed the company to call, fax, email, etc. This may seem fine and good until they move forward and include the option to make ‘personal visits’ at a user’s home or workplace

Beyond even the idea of being emailed or called constantly as a result of requesting a coupon on a website, a recent Supreme Court decision could place an important legal limit on your options if a job situation goes awry. You may not immediately consider an employee agreement to be a Terms of Use, but it absolutely does impose an important set of rules and policies on your continued work. In the case of the Supreme Court decision, a May 21st decision prevented employees from joining as a group to sue corporations, and be subjected to ‘individual arbitration agreements.’ This could pave the way for companies to avoid penalties for unpaid overtime and more, due to employees being unable to find or afford legal representation for an individual claim.

For owners of cars or trucks that are having problems, even a dealership’s “help” can come with exceptions that could severely harm you. While assisting owners of Ford Focus and Fiesta vehicles with problematic transmissions, we have found far too many people who unknowingly signed away their right to pursue a Lemon Law claim. Presented as the way to ‘get help’ covering an expensive repair or a high-value trade-in, dealerships can bury within an agreement conditions that prevent future litigation and that removes all liability for the manufacturer and dealer alike. That is how a tempting ‘$3000 dealer-assistance’ offer to cover another repair out of warranty could cost an owner potentially $30,000 or more if their vehicle qualified for a full buyback. For this reason alone, we believe it is critical that people who are having issues with their products read the documents on their own free time (not at the store or dealership) and even consider having an attorney review them before signing.

There is no simple explanation for what you should do, or not do, regarding Terms of Use. It is fair to expect a give-and-take between consumer and brand, especially when a service is provided for free. However, taking the time to explore the real expectations (or exposure) hiding in a Terms of Use agreement is important due to the sheer impact a Release or arbitration clause could have on your life and future. What’s more, if you believe you may have a lawsuit pending or believe you may have to sue a company for damages, you should openly expect that the Terms of Use have the interests of the company, not you, protected. In those instances, where a legal claim is expected, you must speak with an attorney before moving forward because the implications of a simple signature could be devastating.

We absolutely want and need to see documents that could impact our clients’ rights. If you are an existing client and have received legal documents from the company or organization we are presently representing you against, know that this is not okay, and we need to speak with you as soon as possible to protect your rights!

For more information on the types of cases our firm handles, click here or contact us through our online form today.

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