A federal court in Illinois has dismissed a lawsuit challenging L.L. Bean’s new, more limited, return policy.

Bean customer Victor Bondi filed the lawsuit in February, three days after Bean ended its unlimited return policy, saying it had been abused by customers returning worn-out shirts, boots, jackets and other goods. The company’s new policy is to accept returns on items purchased in the previous year or if there has been a manufacturing defect.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman dismissed the suit, saying Bondi was simply anticipating that the Freeport-based retailer would no longer honor its “100% satisfaction” return policy for items bought prior to Feb. 9, when the company announced its new policy and that he couldn’t prove he or anyone else had been harmed.

Gettleman said the company’s statement about the new policy never included language that suggested it applied to items purchased under the old return policy.

Items bought before the date the new policy was announced “are not subject to the new one-year restriction on returns,” Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said in an email Tuesday.

She said the company was pleased with the ruling.

“As we have maintained from the outset, this suit is without merit and the complaint misstated L.L. Bean’s policies,” she wrote.

CONTROVERSY AROUND POLICY CHANGE

A handful of similar suits are pending in other federal courts, but have not yet reached the point where a judge is ready to rule on the company’s requests for dismissals.

Bean long had one of the most open-ended return policies in retailing. Simply put, the company’s guarantee was if a customer was ever dissatisfied with something bought at Bean, they could return it for a replacement or refund, no questions asked.

But the company said that policy has been abused in recent years, with customers returning products that were years old, worn out and in some cases, no longer stocked by the company. In those cases, customers could get a refund to buy a newer version.

Bean’s decision to change its open-ended return policy sparked considerable discussion online, ranging from those who saw a policy that allowed them to return worn-out products as a birthright to others who wondered why the company stuck so long with a policy that was so easy to abuse.

Some customers said they knew people who bought used Bean items at yard sales and then returned the items to the store for a new ones. One customer said he saw a couple returning a canoe, paddles, life jackets, a tent, sleeping bags and other items that they had bought two weeks before for their Maine vacation. They said the items hadn’t met their expectations and got a full refund on their credit card.

Bondi’s suit was more pre-emptive, trying to make sure that the new policy wouldn’t apply retroactively. It said that the guarantee of satisfaction was “a pillar of (Bean’s) brand.” In fact, it was part of the company lore that founder L.L. Bean accepted returns on 90 of the first 100 boots he sold and set about to make them better before offering them for sale again.

LAWSUIT’S CLAIMS DISMISSED

Bondi called himself a satisfied Bean customer, but sought to make the suit a class action, in which other Bean customers could join. Settlements in class-action lawsuits typically run to millions of dollars with each customer receiving a small cash payment.

Gettleman said that, contrary to Bondi’s contention, the statement announcing the new policy “contains no definite, unequivocal manifestation of an intent to no longer honor the old warranty for items purchased before February 9, 2018.”

Instead, he said, it appeared Bean was adopting a new return policy for goods purchased after that date, a decision it could make as long as customers are aware of the policy. At best, the judge said, the language in Bean’s announcement of the new policy could be considered ambiguous, and “ambiguity, however, does not amount to anticipatory repudiation.”

Gettleman also dismissed another claim in Bondi’s lawsuit that alleged Bean had engaged in deceptive marketing because the unlimited return policy had been trumpeted in Bean catalogs and advertising. Gettleman said that argument failed as well because Bean wasn’t refusing to honor its policy for purchases before Feb. 9 and because Bondi hasn’t suffered any damages.

A call to Bondi’s lawyers in Chicago was not returned Tuesday.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

filed under: