DennisBeaverDecember 07, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Today we’re going to take a look at warrantees and guarantees in a very different way. More than just a discussion of the law, thanks to an interesting question from a reader, we’ve also got a highly practical and affordable gift idea for this holiday season. It all began with the following e-mail from Russell — Scoutmaster Russell — who lives in Porterville.

“Some time ago you replied to a reader’s complaint about an expensive Windproof Umbrella purchased from a luggage shop in San Francisco which was blown apart the first time he used it. As you pointed out, assuming the umbrella was not used in higher velocity winds than warranted for — in other words, used correctly — there should certainly have been an exchange or refund,” his e-mail continued.

“The shop owner refused to make a refund or offer an exchange. You took a simple fact situation which could happen to anyone and used it as a way to explain the warranty rights which most of us take for granted. This made me wonder about what happens when it’s the customer who causes the product to fail. Does the seller have any obligation in such an event? I’m in that situation right now.”

As Russell gave me his contact numbers, I called, and learned that he has been a Scoutmaster for a number of years. “There is a connection to Scouting and my question,” he told me.

“All Scouts must have a dependable flashlight. Most handbooks talk about owning a “Regulation” old-fashioned “D” battery flashlight, from the dinosaur age which will last for about an hour before running out of power.”

“As you know, over the past few years, LED flashlights have hit the market, but most were generally disappointing. They were dim, the light was not especially useful, and old-fashioned flashlights which cost much less were far better. Today, the technology is vastly improved and the newer LED’s are extremely bright and some can run for close to 100 hours on a few AA or AAA batteries.”

“Several months ago, I purchased several of what at first seemed to be the perfect LED flashlights at a Sam’s Club, for less than $30 for a package of two. We took them on an outing, and as always happens, they got dropped and bumped around. Three failed to work. This never happened before with any of our old, “D” battery, flashlights. For years, they bounced around glove boxes, trunks, pick-up beds, and always performed.”

Russell then described what he found: “The batteries which power the flashlight are in a holder which is brittle — really flimsy — which even minor shocks — even just replacing a battery — can cause it to fall apart, making it impossible to use the flashlight.”

He called the “800” number on the package, and someone told him, “Well, since you dropped it, we can’t help.” He also tried to return it to his Sam’s Club, and was told, “You abused it. Sorry.”

Out of Luck?

Russell’s experience with the Element flashlight was not unique. Going online, I found numerous, identical complaints. In my legal opinion, the otherwise hi-tech flashlight has a fatal flaw — an unacceptably fragile battery holder.

Unless we buy something “AS IS with no warranties at all, virtually all consumer products are covered by warranties. When used in a normal manner — in a clearly foreseeable way and non-abusive way — the legal question comes down to this:

Was the item fit for the purpose for which it was sold? Did it perform as a flashlight should, under normal usage? A manufacturer needs to design and test products in real-world settings. Russell is obviously owed a refund by Sam’s Club unless they replace his purchase with an updated version that does not have that battery holder issue.

Industry’s viewpoint and buying recommendations

In researching this article, I spoke with both public relations and technical staff at a number of companies who sell both “consumer” and “professional” quality flashlight. These included, Sure-Fire, Coastal, and Duracell.

The LED itself is physically vastly stronger than the traditional flashlight bulb and will last for thousands of hours before requiring replacement, as opposed to 4 or 5 hours with a conventional flashlight. But a responsible manufacturer needs to test their product in the real world, and design it to withstand expected, predictable use. From a manufacturer’s standpoint, flashlights do get dropped, used as hammers, and in ways which demand good, solid design,” I was told by Ron S. Canfield, PR specialist with Fountain Valley based Surefire.

My findings and recommendations

I was sent a number of flashlights to test — new, incredibly bright, latest LED technology — and here’s my report and recommendations:

(1) When shopping, don’t be fooled by “Candlepower” claims of brightness. The scientific measure of output is stated in Lumens and can’t be fudged.

(2) Don’t fall into the “if one is good, two are better,” mentality in terms of brightness. The average person will not need more than 50 Lumen outputs, which is considered to be the tactical level of light for law enforcement. A traditional 4 D cell flashlight outputs 30 Lumens with a halogen bulb. Remember that the brighter it is, run time will be shortened.

(3) Kevin Corcoran Marketing and Communications Manager at Portland, Oregon based Coast Lenser, feels it’s important to understand that optical design is a critical factor in delivering useful light. “Good manufacturers place a lot of importance on optics and lens design which determines usability.” The unique thing about Coast Lenser flashlights is that they are designed to let the customer test them in, for example, Lowes, before buying.

(4) Recently, Duracell introduced three new LED flashlights onto a crowded market. They are called Daylite, and sell from $25 to $35. They use a technology which captures virtually 100 percent of the light output, giving an extremely bright, white light without dark spots common to many other LED flashlights. It is really a major leap ahead in this market.

It’s worth looking at the Web sites for the flashlights I’ve mentioned.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.