Recalling the Dawn of Modern Consumer Protection Law

On this date fifty three years ago, the Supreme Court decided Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358 (1960).  In a unanimous opinion of over 50 pages, the longest opinion in volume 32 of New Jersey Reports, the Court, speaking through Justice Francis, remade warranty law in favor of the consumer, affirming a jury verdict in favor of purchasers of a Chrysler Plymouth automobile. 

The Court followed “a trend and a design in legislative and judicial thinking toward providing protection for the buyer” where, before, there was little or none.  The Court rejected privity arguments and recognized that while “[t]he traditional contract is the result of free bargaining of parties who are brought together by the play of the market, and who meet each other on a footing of approximate economic equality,” standard form contracts, used by all competitors, had become “those in which one predominant party will dictate its law” to consumers, who “must take it to buy an automobile.” 

The Court stated that “[t]he status of the automobile industry is unique,” in that there were few manufacturers who hold great bargaining power since cars were, even then, essential to everyday life in New Jersey.  Later, though, Henningsen served as the springboard for modern consumer protection law generally, as indeed it should have. 

No matter what the product being sold, the days when the common law was based on face to face dealings between a small seller and an individual buyer, who likely knew each other, had long since passed in many consumer transactions.  Fifty one years after Henningsen, in a disastrously anti-consumer ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States, discussed here, Justice Scalia used almost those very words, writing that “the times in which consumer contracts were anything other than adhesive are long past.”  The difference is that the Supreme Court of New Jersey has at least since 1960, and continuing through today, rightly perceived the need for consumer protection, while the Supreme Court of the United States often fails to take that view.

A bit of trivia, or an indication that the world is round:  the attorney who represented Chrysler in this case was Sidney M. Schreiber, who later became a distinguished Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.