Corect thatt errir pleaze

But this week saw the extraordinary case of a Belfast bookseller being taken to court by a disgruntled customer – over a small number of errors in a book he sold her. Former Queen’s University finance student Grainne McElroy was so aggrieved at the mistakes she found in the £46 (€69) academic textbook that she attempted to sue David Torrans, who owns No Alibis bookshop. After a 20-minute hearing in Enniskillen Crown Court on Tuesday morning, the case was dismissed by the judge.

From the Irish Times, today. Important note: Gráinne McElroy responds to the Times article (by way of a comment to this post) here.

I think they are missing the point. The story as reported is standard litigious-culture-bashing, backed up with some seeming concern for the hardship faced by small booksellers. But why should book readers put up with low standards? It’s not as if the student was disagreeing with the content or the arguments. A skipping CD or a supposedly all-red carpet that had bits of black scattered around it is a mechanical problem, and can easily be a case of not-fit-for-purpose given appropriate circumstances.

Typos, especially in a scientific or mathematical textbook, can of course make the book something less than advertised. While the occasional grocer’s apos’trophe is hardly worth causing a legal stink over (despite the clear sinfulness of such errors), that does not mean that the booklover (book reader, book purchaser, etc) must accept all errors.

Yes, there may be a problem with going after the poor little shop (why is this relevant?) instead of the publisher (presumably sufficiently large as to be an acceptable defendant!). But it seems that these cases (and the media coverage that results from them) should turn on factors such as the interpretation of the relevant statutes (such as the Sale of Goods Acts), rather than yet more scaremongering about how the lawyers are taking over the world. I am not advocating LA-style lawyers on every corner, but dragging consumer protection law into disrepute by mocking what seems a very sensible exercising of accepted, reasonable legal principles is unfair.

In a week where we are likely to see the long-awaited Consumer Protection Bill, the unsuccessful case of Ms. McElroy, who apparently:

despite her difficulties with the book, […]subsequently graduated with a first class honours degree

(says the Times, with a smirk)

reminds all consumers to be vigilant and assertive in the exercise of their rights – whether to read or otherwise!

Incidentally someone (either the interviewee or at Irish Times) is guilty of yes, an error here:

Editorial consultant Dermott Barrett is equally incredulous: “For someone to instigate legislation – that’s really extreme,” he says.

That would be litigation, Sir (or sub-editor). And what is an ‘editorial consultant’ anyway?

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7 thoughts on “Corect thatt errir pleaze

  1. Hold your horses, there Daithí. I agree that books are no different from other goods – if they are defective, then the consumer should have a cause of action against the vendor. However, in any such case, there are at least two crucial questions. First, is there a cause of action; second, if so, what would be the remedy.

    First, the cause of action. The relevant legislation (in the UK, as well as in Ireland), implies into every contract for the sale of goods a term that the goods are fit for the purpose for which they are bought and as durable as it is reasonable to expect in all the circumstances. This applies to books, as much as to DCs, carpet, or any other goods. But I am not sure that a small number of typographical errors in a 1,000+ page book is a breach of that term. The book can still be read; it is still fit for its usual purpose. It would take a considerable number of typographical errors before the book became unreadable, though, admittedly, that number might not be as large in an academic textbook as in a pulp novel (like some I have read).

    Second, the remedy. In such cases, the main remedy is the refund of the purchase price, or the replacement or repair of the goods, at the purchaser’s choice. Replacement or repair would not seem to be appropriate here, so that leaves refund, which presumably is what she sought. If she had sought to claim a greater remedy, she would need to have suffered a loss that was either reasonably foreeseable or actually foreseen at the time the contract was made. But she got a First, so it’s unlikely that she suffered any loss at all. In the event, then, had there been a breach of the implied term, she would not have been able to claim more than the return of the book and the refund of her money.

    All in all, 20 minutes would seem to me to be about right in which to consider these issues and find the claim wanting. Finally, two confessions. First, I know the No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue, Belfast, and like it very much indeed. I’ve bought several crime novels there over the years, and never brought one back (even though some have not been the best reads I’ve ever had). Second, when I retire (or am restructured), I intend to open a bookstore of my own just like it. If and when I do, I would hope not to be sued by the customers!

  2. Hmmmb. I’ll give you the fact that a small number of typos does not establish that the book is not fit for purpose. My argument here is that if we take accuracy in print seriously, we have to allow the possibility that sloppy editing can be a legitimate cause of action.

    I still don’t get the relevance of her First, though – if I am a good musician and I buy a crappy guitar (that is not fit for purpose in an objective sense), I can (probably) still make it sound good…but does that make me a less plausible plaintiff?

    My retirement gig is mobile library, probably. It would require learning to drive, but road traffic issues aside, lawsuits are unlikely there!

  3. At least in Malta (whose Civil Code is based upon Roman law), the seller is bound to provide a warranty against latent defects for 6 months, unless he/she expressely excludes it from the contract of sale.

    The warranty is defined as against defects which “render it unfit for the use for which it is intended, or which diminish its value to such an extent that the buyer would not have bought it or would have tendered a smaller price, if he had been aware of them.”

    I can’t say I would imagine that the book’s fitness for purpose would have been changed by a few typos, unless they critically changed the meaning of the text. However, at least in this case the subjective test available in Maltese jurisdiction would probably have given the plaintiff a good basis to argue.

    One question which comes to mind though is why didn’t she make the publishing company party to the suit? If she was so worried about the quality of her textbook, it would have made sense, and I imagine it is permissible in the UK/Ireland.

    As regarding the remedy, this obviously not a case where the bookshop was in bad faith, so it would be fair to ask for return of the price plus expenses of the sale.

    P.S. Cool way to try and get schoolbooks for free though 🙂

  4. In a very strange coincidence I have stumbled across this blog. My name is Grainne Mc Elroy and I am the student who took a bookseller to court over a £46 textbook. I did not realise that the case had been reported in the Irish Times but have since been able to read the article which almost left me screaming at my computer. Many facts of the whole issue have been misreported or omitted and I would be very grateful for the chance to put my side of the story across.

    I see that Mr Torrans was quoted in the Times as saying that not a single other student had come to him with a problem. This is an outright lie unless he has a very short memory. A friend of mine had visited him a few weeks before I, and Mr Torrans had promised to get in touch with the publishers to inform them of the problem and let her know the outcome. He did not do this but she didn’t pursue the matter. Later, in the midst of exams I found so many errors in my chosen study areas that I was forced to consult other textbooks. Imagine my surprise when I discovered an earlier edition of the same book in the library which had no obvious errors, I relied on this for the remainder of my study time but I vowed to return to the bookshop when I was under less pressure. This I did at the end of January 2006. Mr Torrans asked if I was the student who he had spoken to before and said that she was supposed to come back to him, another untruth. I was able to show him many mistakes (about 10 I believe, numbers with decimal places shifted about, symbols omitted from equations and x’s where there should have been y’s) that were concentrated in one chapter and he agreed to ‘again’ contact the publisher. It’s important to note that I was very willing to give him the time to do this, I didn’t set out to go to court over the whole matter. When I hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks I had to chase him, both by email and in person twice. I got the distinct impression that he was stalling and that he was simply hoping that I would go away. Eventually he said that it was my problem and he gave him the email address of the sales representative of the publisher in the UK. Although I felt that he would have more weight with the publishers as a customer who buys a substantial quantity of books from them, I did try to go down this route, but hit problems when the publishers (Pearson Education) denied liability because it was Pearson Education in the USA who published the book for distribution in the UK.

    You can probably imagine that by the time the case went to court, it was not just £46 at stake but a basic principle. I was told by a consumer agency that if the book has been falling apart at the spine I would be entitled to a refund but incorrect information did not constitute a defect. I wasn’t ready to accept this and after contacting trading standards I felt that there would be a possibility to get my money back if I went to the small claims court. While I had to pay another £16 to have the case heard, I was willing to take the chance that I might be successful. Some might say that I am expressing bad feeling after the case was dismissed but I’m not convinced that the judge was impartial that day, her first question was whether I had a solicitor or taken legal advice. She responded that ‘that was a pity I had not’, which didn’t really leave me in much doubt as to what the outcome would be, even though she hadn’t yet seen the individual errors or the scale of them. According to the guide to the small claims court, solicitors are not necessary and you cannot claim for reimbursement of their fees in your claim. I did consult some family and friends who are solicitors or have some background in law and it was their opinion that while it wasn’t a foregone conclusion I had a chance. The judge mentioned that she always liked to see solicitor present and I got the impression that my case was less worthy of her time because I didn’t have one. Again before examining the errors she decided that the advice of trading standards was not valid. She asked many irrelevant questions, “What did other students do” – I can’t speak for other students! and “Would I have failed if had I used the book” – I wasn’t claiming for damages! and she finally decided that a textbook apparently isn’t to be used as a learning aid on its own and simply complements what you already know, a fact I certainly wasn’t previously aware of.

    To add insult to the injury when I explained my position with the publisher to the judge, Mr Torrans said that he had had contact details for the publishers in the USA all along and if I had asked for this, he would have passed this along. At this stage the case ended with the judge asking Mr Torrans to supply me with the relevant details. Outside he said that he didn’t have these with him but I should email him. This I did exactly 2 weeks ago but perhaps not surprisingly have yet to have any kind of response despite chasing him again last week. I have a problem with the article in the Times portraying him as some poor unfortunate bookseller being hounded by a student. I really don’t think that he made any attempt to sort out the problem when I first approached him. I know of a few people who are enamoured with No Alibis but I don’t feel that offering coffee and hospitality to customers is an acceptable substitute for a basic level of customer service when you have a valid problem. I am also certain that I had I been awarded a refund, Mr Torrans would have then taken the action he should have done in the first place and put pressure on the publishers to be reimbursed himself for all the stock that he had bought and so I don’t believe that he would have stood to suffer any loss.

    As you say Daithi, the fact that I got a first in my degree is completely irrelevant, I stopped using the textbook when I found the much superior earlier edition. The fact that it is mentioned in the Times also makes it worth questioning what the outcome would have been if I had been one of the students who got less that a 2.1 mark in that particular module. Would they have been more deserving of a refund? A second point is that I am now a postgraduate student and some material in the textbook could be useful if I had any faith in it as a learning tool. As it stands I do not and it sits on my bookshelf gathering dust.

    A couple of other things that are also irrelevant to the outcome of the court case but which I would like to be known. Although the judge mentioned early on in the case that the opinion of the lecturer would have no bearing on the outcome, she did question him on his thoughts, he lied and said that he always informed his students of the mistakes that they needed to know about as it was his duty to do so. I attended every single lecture and tutorial that he had and never once did he point out an error. On one occasion I went to him in frustration over a formula that didn’t work and he admitted there was a mistake (a plus instead of a minus sign) and also admitted that there were far more serious occurrences of errors but declined to point these out. I countered his claim but the judge simply noted that there appeared to be a disagreement on the issue.

    I don’t expect a textbook to be 100% perfect, this I agree would be an impossible target. I’m sure that in my haste to respond on this issue that I’ve made mistakes despite using a spell checker. Yes, the book has 1000+ pages but I have so far only looked at only maybe 50 of these and have found 20 quite serous mistakes. And yes, some of these mistakes are obvious and can be fixed through working through examples but this is extremely time- consuming. I have scribbled notes on all the relevant pages and even question marks at some information that I now know is correct. As a student you need to have confidence in the information contained in a textbook, a few mistakes would not necessarily detract from this but a substantial amount will. I have bought many textbooks over the years and not one has caused me the frustration and confusion that this one has.

    In response to Anthony’s comment

    “I can’t say I would imagine that the book’s fitness for purpose would have been changed by a few typos, unless they critically changed the meaning of the text.”

    Here’s an example of just one error

    “Any deviation from the expected return is interpreted as an abnormal return, ejt, and can be taken as evidence of market efficiency if the CAPM is correct”. According to the older edition of the book, efficiency should read as inefficiency, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to suggest that this is a serious error that changes the meaning of the sentence.

    I did attempt to inform current Queen’s students of the problem through a consumer page in a local paper and advised them to buy the older edition. I do not know how many people were able to heed the advice but I for one sorely regret spending my money on such a defective product. I have since heard that a note is generally put in all textbooks to release the authors and publishers from many form of liability in the case of mistakes but it seems ridiculous that a newer edition with so many errors is made available on the market in place of a older better one and that students simply have to accept this.

    As you can probably see, I feel quite strongly about this issue and while I didn’t get the refund I feel I was due, I’m glad that the problem has reached a wider audience.

  5. Student textbooks are expensive, so we shouldn’t have to put up with low standards and typos. Grainne represented an entire student population with this case, and I’m grateful that the issue has been raised. I’m just sorry that you didn’t get the refund Grainne 🙂

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