Case law has developed over the years with respect to enforceability of Web site terms and conditions, and the general parameters are now pretty well understood. Courts will, in general, enforce online terms and conditions against consumer users, provided they are given adequate notice and an opportunity for review.
There are numerous exceptions to the general rule, however. Courts often refuse to enforce specific terms in Web site terms and conditions against consumers, particularly where those terms involve class action waivers, arbitration requirements, inconvenient forum choices, and like provisions.
The case of Burcham v. Expedia, involving a pro se attorney’s challenge to the enforceability of the Expedia travel site terms and conditions, is not one of those exceptions.
The pro se attorney plaintiff in Burcham v. Expedia brought suit against the travel site under Missouri consumer law, claiming that Expedia knowingly misrepresented the hotel amenities for a room that he booked on the site. He sought $5 million in damages and class certification.
It didn’t help the court’s view of the case that the room was booked for a hotel in Missouri in November, and one of the amenities that Burcham claimed was absent when he and his children arrived at the hotel was an outdoor swimming pool. Fair enough, Burcham also claimed that the hotel lacked an indoor swimming pool, conference room, restaurant and bar/lounge. But the court pointed out that Burcham’s complaint did not allege that he or his children wished to use any of the absent amenities.
Burcham was off to a bad start.
Expedia also established by affidavit that Burcham’s booking had been made by a process under which the user was presented with a legend stating: "By continuing on you agree to the following terms and conditions." Beneath the legend, the full text of the terms and conditions was displayed. In order to book a room, the user was required to click on the "continue" button.
Confronted with this evidence, Burcham argued that he simply did not remember seeing the terms and conditions when he used the Expedia site. He suggested that he may have used the site from a shared computer at his law office without checking to see if the prior user of the computer was already logged onto the site. Thus, he argued, the prior user may have clicked past the terms and conditions, but they were never presented to him.
The court briefly reviewed the relevant case law (e.g., Specht v. Netscape, Register.com v. Verio, ProCD v. Zeidenberg) and the distinctions between clickwrap, shrinkwrap and browsewrap agreements, and quickly concluded that Expedia had an "enforceable online clickwrap agreement" with Burcham. Burcham’s argument that he never saw the terms and conditions was dismissed both on the facts and the law.
On the facts, the court found, Burcham offered no evidence to support his "clever theory" that someone else clicked past the terms and conditions, and the undisputed facts showed that the user account created at the time the terms and conditions were assented to was associated with Burcham’s own e-mail address. On the law, the court concluded that if Burcham in fact had accessed the Web site under someone else’s account, he was still bound by the terms and conditions to which that user had assented, citing, e.g., Motise v. America Online, Inc., 346 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (individual using the online account of another user bound by the same terms and conditions as the account owner).
Burcham also tripped over the evidence he himself submitted to the court along with his brief. The court noted that the Expedia Web pages Burcham submitted as exhibits contained a hyperlink at the bottom to the full text of the Expedia terms and conditions. The court noted that the terms and conditions stated that users of the site consent to be bound by those terms and conditions by accessing and using the Web site. Thus, the court concluded, even if Burcham wasn’t clickwrapped, he was browsewrapped.
Finally, the court quickly dismissed Burcham’s arguments that the forum selection provision was unreasonable and in contravention of Missouri public policy and that the contract as a whole was one of adhesion.
The ruling in Burcham v. Expedia is a win for the enforceability of online agreements, and another loss for pro se attorney plaintiffs for whom courts seem to have little sympathy. See, e.g., Field v. Google, 412 F.Supp. 2d 1106 (D. Nev. 2006) (rejecting pro se attorney plaintiff’s "manufactured" copyright infringement claim based on Google Web crawling and caching).
Burcham v. Expedia, Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17104 (E.D. Mo. Mar. 6, 2009)