Unpacking the LL Bean Return Policy Lawsuit: Do Disgruntled Customers Have a Case?

Change is tough.

When L.L. Bean announced last week that it was revoking its generous lifetime return policy — citing costly and widespread abuse by customers — the backlash came swiftly and aggressively. Scores of supposed L.L. Bean customers took to social media to express their disappointment in the change of a guarantee the retailer offered for more than a century.

Meanwhile, it took mere days for one disgruntled shopper to file a lawsuit against the Maine-based company — which has enjoyed favor among consumers for its liberal return system — claiming that it broke faith with customers. The suit, which seeks class action status, asks to recover unspecified damages and requests an order that L.L. Bean honor its 100 percent customer satisfaction guarantee.

And while one could easily have foreseen that the brand would lose some fan support with the policy change, whether the new rules could cost it millions of dollars in a lawsuit may be more difficult to determine.

A company spokesperson on Wednesday told CNBC that the lawsuit misrepresents the return policy, which states that purchases made before Feb. 9, 2018 — when the change was announced — are still covered under the original lifetime policy, so long as customers can provide proof of purchase.

And to an extent, the company’s defense could pass muster, according to fashion law attorney Elizabeth Kurpis.

“I’ve reviewed the complaint and the company’s statement, and it does seem that the suit was filed a bit prematurely in that the plaintiff may not have had all the details surrounding the updated policy,” Kurpis told FN. “Because the policy does not apply retroactively to purchases made prior to February 9, 2018, the claims in the complaint may not be entirely valid.”

Still, there is one small clause that could shake things up, according to Kurpis.

“The question for me here is whether the original ‘no conditions’ policy required that customers provide proof of purchase in order to get the return or exchange,” Kurpis said.

Although the complainant did not directly address this element in the filing, Kurpis noted that the L.L. Bean spokesperson’s media response to the lawsuit stated that “proof of purchase will continue to be required” (emphasis added).

“This leads me to believe that proof of purchase has always been required, but the company’s chairman has pointed out that some of those abusing the old policy sought ‘refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales,’ where presumably a proof of purchase would not be available. Yet these customers were still able to return or exchange the merchandise,” Kurpis explained. “So the issue then becomes if a proof of purchase was not actually required for these prior purchases, but now is, does this violate the ‘no conditions’ warranty or any of the consumer protection laws cited in the complaint or elsewhere?”

The plot thickens.

(L.L. Bean did not immediately respond to FN’s request for comment.)

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