Consumer Protection Law Is a Valuable Weapon

by Garland M Baker on May 24, 2004

The consumer protection law in Costa Rica, a model law for Latin America, works well if you know how to use it.

On July 1, 1996, the consumer protection law was published in La Gaceta, Costa Rica’s public records bulletin. Before that date, any consumer who had a problem with a private or public company that sold products or services had few rights. The administrative and judicial processes for complaining were very complicated.

The consumer law prohibits acts that cause damage or threaten to cause damage to consumers by creating confusion or making false allegations. It prohibits the improper use, reproduction or imitation of trademarks, commercial names, advertising, packaging or any other means of identification that are the property of others.

Most importantly, the new law included two new defense systems for consumers:

First, it created the national consumer commission (Comisión Nacional del Consumidor, as a branch of the economy ministry, Ministerio de Economía). Second, it outlined new, faster legal ways to sue using the normal court system to protect ones rights.

The national consumer commission was created to receive all consumer complaints. Once a complaint is received, an administrative process is started against the accused institution. The office has the faculty to mandate a severe fine against a merchant and/or to order the restoration of money paid and/or the replacement of an article purchased or service received.

It is very important to note, any consumer complaint is caduco after two months, which means if one is going to complain about something they better do it quickly, or learn to live with the product or service purchased.

When problems are bigger and the potential damages greater, it may be necessary to go to court. Before the change in the law the only legal avenue was a legal case called a proceso ordinario, or ordinary process suit. These cases usually outlive their owners because they take so long in court. Ordinary process cases 10 years old are not uncommon.

Now one can file a sumario in a consumer complaint. A sumario, a summary proceeding, is an expedited case that moves very quickly through the courts, which means one may actually be around to benefit from the results.

Many companies, like building contractors, rent-a-car agencies, and time-share hotels have abusive clauses in their rental agreements or purchase contracts. Building contractors hardly ever finish projects on time and rarely under budget. Most people do not know these companies can be sued using the consumer laws for relief.

In the case of high-tech product companies, some sell refurbished items stating they are new. Certain cell phone vendors are the best example of this. Many cell phones sold in Costa Rica are grey market, or secondary market items, mostly from telephone company cellular promotions in the United States. Another abuser in Costa Rica would be a computer store selling old and outdated computer-related articles that are no longer found in the United States except maybe on EBay.

The consumer protection law defines a merchant as “any physical or legal person, public or private that sells products or services,” which includes public institutions like INS, the insurance monopoly, ICE, the telephone company, RECOPE, the national refinery, everyone’s favorite, RACSA, the Internet monopoly, and all the municipalities.

This is great news for consumers because one can sue public institutions using the consumer protection laws and, in many cases, win. The court for public institutions is called the Juzgados Contencioso, or public complaints court.

The necessary laws exist here to get action and make a difference, unlike other Latin American countries. As anywhere in the world, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, prevails so one should at least complain or sue quickly if unhappy with a product or service in Costa Rica.

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