Lawyers divided over Amazon iPaq case

Customers who last week ordered a £7.32 iPaq from Amazon could fight their corner, but Amazon has more legal defences up its sleeve
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor
Disgruntled customers who last week attempted to buy cheap iPaqs from Amazon.co.uk might be able to demand their rights in court. However, in this complex legal area, it is likely that Amazon would win in the end, according to lawyers. On Wednesday, a flurry of emails alerted Internet users that Amazon was mistakenly selling iPaqs worth nearly £300 for £7.32. As heavy traffic drew this to the company's attention, the site was closed for a short time, and then Amazon contacted customers to say the sales were cancelled, as the small print on the site states that Amazon has not entered into any contract until it sends an email saying it has shipped the products. Legal opinion has suggested the e-tailer may be too optimistic. Law firm Beale and Company last week advised shoppers to take their case to court, as contract law may work in their favour. Writing in ZDNet UK's Tech Update, Nigel Miller, a partner at City law firm Fox Williams, points out that the small print on the Amazon site says: "No contract will subsist between you and Amazon.co.uk for the sale by it to you of any product unless and until Amazon.co.uk accepts your order by email confirming that it has dispatched your product". However, said Miller, "This may not be binding on the customer if it is not sufficiently visible or if it is unfair." Amazon's case would also be undermined by its confirmation email -- the one it said did not constitute a contract -- which includes advice on how "To cancel this contract...". Said Michael Archer, a partner at Beale and Company: "It could be argued that Amazon are stating that this is acceptance of the consumer's offer, and it would be surprising if a court were to decide that no contract existed at this point." Despite this, Miller believes that consumers would be likely to lose a long drawn-out fight, if it went to court. "If Amazon loses on [the wording of its conditions], it can argue 'mistake'. This is a most complex area of law and the cases are somewhat confusing but I suspect Amazon would win on this point in the end." Even so, Miller suggests that Amazon.co.uk may actually be better off honouring the sales at the lower price than it would be fighting individual claims and suffering the associated negative press: "You can argue about the legal position but the commercial reality is that a consumer Web site will want to maintain its customer goodwill and it will not be cost efficient for it to fight multiple claims." Silicon.com's Will Sturgeon contributed to this story. Click here to read the full report on Tech Update.
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