What is the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act?
A network of federal, state, and local laws protect consumers against conduct and practices that are considered deceptive, coercive, or otherwise unfair. North Carolina law is no exception: specifically, Chapter 75 of the North Carolina General Statutes prohibits certain practices that are deemed “unfair or deceptive” to consumers of products and services. The primary law banning unfair business practices toward consumers is known as the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
There is a range of actions that can be considered “unfair” or “deceptive.” For instance, rolling back the odometer on a used car, or promoting a product with false advertising, are obvious examples of universally unfair business tactics. However, in reality, many of these practices are harder to spot. That is why litigation attorneys often get involved when consumers feel cheated or duped by a business. When they do, the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act is a valuable tool.
In many cases, consumers can file complaints with the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, which houses a department that specifically addresses consumer complaints. However, civil claims under Chapter 75 are another avenue that litigants can use to seek compensation for a wrong done by a business.
What is “Unfair” or “Deceptive” Conduct?
North Carolina courts have historically struggled to cleanly define “unfair” or “deceptive” conduct. As such, the “unfair” prong of the definition tends to be quite broad in its application. In fact, the Court of Appeals has opined that judges should consider the totality of all facts and circumstances in a given situation in determining whether certain conduct was unfair.
Conversely, deceptive conduct has a clearer definition. Generally, the law defines it as an act or acts that have the capacity to deceive. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that plaintiffs asserting these claims need to show that they actually, substantially, and detrimentally relied on this conduct in making an important decision. Otherwise, they cannot recover. As such, garden variety breach of contract claims generally do not qualify as claims under Chapter 75.
There is no precise list of unfair and deceptive trade practices because these claims are fact-intensive and largely depend upon the circumstances. However, there are a few general categories of behavior that courts have labeled unfair or deceptive. A few include:
- Fraud or misrepresentation in a commercial setting
- Situations in which competitors divvy up their sales territory in order to reduce the competition (and thus taking options away from consumers)
- Unfair or deceptive conduct in the insurance industry
- Wrongfully interfering with someone else’s contract
- Providing misleading information about pricing
- Failing to disclose pertinent information about a product or service
- Egregiously and systematically overcharging customers for goods or services
Ordinarily, a judge or jury will be responsible for determining whether a certain action qualifies as an unfair or deceptive trade practice.
Proving A Claim under Chapter 75
There are a few elements needed to prove a claim under Chapter 75. Merely asserting that a business has taken advantage of you in some way is not enough. First and foremost, plaintiffs need to prove that 1) they substantially relied on the business’ conduct, and 2) that their reliance upon a deceptive trade practice actually harmed them in some concrete way.
Plaintiffs also must show that the deceptive practice was “in or affecting commerce,” in other words, the harm has to have flowed from a business with which the plaintiff was purchasing a good or service. As such, person-to-person conduct does not fall under Chapter 75. Also, internal disputes within a business do not qualify: the harm has to involve an interaction between a business and a consumer who are engaged in commerce.
The law incentivizes plaintiffs to bring complaints under Chapter 75 by automatically offering treble damages for successful claims. This means their damages award will be tripled and in many cases, they can also recover their attorneys’ fees (a deviation from the typical rule that no attorneys’ fees are recoverable in North Carolina civil cases).
Treble damages awards have raised some controversy among legal scholars, as many deem them punitive rather than remedial. In other words, at times, they can seem as though their intention is to punish the party perpetrating the harm instead of making the plaintiff whole, which is the purpose of a civil lawsuit. However, these claims are still widely used and as of now, the treble damages award is still automatic. This makes Chapter 75 a valuable claim for aggrieved plaintiffs.
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The attorneys at Green Mistretta Law are dedicated to delivering positive results for our clients. We take pride in offering the very best legal counsel and working with clients to devise the best strategy for their cases, whether through litigation or alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation and arbitration. We are especially experienced in handling claims where substantial damages are at stake, like Chapter 75 claims. Reach out to us to learn more.
This article does not establish an attorney-client relationship and must not be construed as legal advice.