So-called arbitration clauses are popping up everywhere, with corporations ranging from banks to wireless carriers adding them to customer agreements.
Now there's a new twist on the tactic: Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) is adding the clause to its sales contracts with customers in exchange for a $200 discount. According to Michigan lemon law attorney Steve Lehto, the automaker dangles a "friends and family" discount to auto buyers, who are often unaware of what they are signing and don't later recall agreeing to waiving away their legal rights.
Fiat Chrysler didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Corporations argue that arbitration clauses help save money by bypassing the court system, while in Fiat Chrysler's case at least some buyers are likely happy to take the discount.
Still, there's little evidence that such clauses lead to lower prices, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau found earlier this year. The clauses also mean that consumers have fewer avenues for legal relief when a corporation breaks the law or sells a dud.
Chrysler customers are waiving their right to sue over warranty disputes in exchange for a 1 percent discount, Lehto wrote.
"That $200 is used as the bait to get the buyer's signature, which costs the buyer their right to sue," Lehto wrote at Jalopnik. "Ominously, the contract warns the buyer that if they violate this contract -- presumably by filing suit -- then there will be dire consequences."
If there is a dispute and a complaint goes to arbitration, the venue is picked by Chrysler and governed by rules set by the automaker, he added. By signing such clauses, consumers are giving up their right to sue under lemon laws, which allows car buyers to take legal action if their new vehicle repeatedly breaks down and the manufacturer isn't able to fix it.
The issue is coming to a head in the financial industry, with the CFPB seeking to ban companies from including some arbitration clauses in their service agreements. The agency called the clauses a "free pass to avoid accountability."
While consumers know that they should read through any contract before signing it, the fact is that many Americans skip over the fine print when it comes to terms and agreements. But as in everything, it's important to take the time to read through any contract and understand what legal rights or form of redress you might be giving up.
The other point about Chrysler's discount is that $200 isn't much of a deal. Anyone negotiating an auto price can buy a vehicle for less than the dealer invoice, so agreeing to waive your legal rights for something you can get on your own isn't a good decision.