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What Is a Legal Disclaimer?

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  • Written By: Tim Zurick
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 15 March 2014
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A legal disclaimer is a disavowal or limitation of responsibility between parties arising from some interaction between them. The use of a disclaimer in situations ranging from contract and patent law to product and personal liability makes standardization elusive. Although the wording of a legal disclaimer might occasionally be specified by statute, there is no required language to apply in all other cases.

Potential responsibility or liability might arise from a variety of relationships. A buyer and seller negotiating a sales contract might wish to precisely define what the product is supposed to do and who pays if it doesn't. A much different type of responsibility could exist between a landowner and someone wishing to cross his or her land. Although disclaimers can be applied to such widely varying situations, their common element is the intent to define and limit a duty that one party might owe to the other.

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Although a legal disclaimer might be useful in sorting out duties owed, it don't always accomplish the goal of risk limitation. A bicycle manufacturer, for example, has a duty to build bikes that can reasonably be considered safe for their intended use. A legal disclaimer of all liability printed on the box might not suffice if, for example, the manufacturer knowingly uses shoddy tubing stock for the bike's frame, resulting in an accident. Even though the cyclist might have seen the disclaimer and agreed to assume responsibility for any accidents, the manufacturing company's intentional breach of duty leaves it as vulnerable to a lawsuit as if there had been no disclaimer at all.

A legal disclaimer that is not properly communicated also might have no effect. If a trespasser fails to see a "No Trespassing" sign, it has little value as a disclaimer. Similarly, printing on a car parking receipt that a garage's liability for damage is limited to $500 US Dollars doesn't make it so. If the car owner never reads the receipt, he or she hasn't necessarily agreed to the limit. The car owner also could reasonably expect that the loss of a car worth $30,000 USD would be compensated for more than $500 USD.

Disclaimers then, are similar to contracts in that they outline a limited aspect of what is often a commercial relationship. Like a contract, a valid legal disclaimer generally has a specific and well-defined objective and is properly communicated and accepted. It also does not permit one of the parties to avoid a duty that the other party should reasonably be able to expect.

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