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Case studies - Laptop case taken to court

In October 2006, Ian Rowland paid £3,080 for a high-spec laptop from online retailer Alienware. He chose the laptop because it could run two powerful graphics cards at the same time.

Within three months, one of the graphics cards failed but Alienware agreed to replace it for free under the one-year warranty. 

But Ian faced further problems with the laptop in July 2009 when it failed to start up. He asked a computer repairer to examine it and got a report saying that the replacement graphics card and the other original graphics card had failed, and both needed replacing at a cost of £957.

What Ian did next

Ian contacted Alienware. It said replacement graphics cards were no longer available, so it could do nothing. Later, it said it could repair the laptop, but Ian would have to pay the cost. Ian argued that the failed graphics cards should have lasted longer than three years, but his letters to Alienware went unanswered. Ian then issued legal proceedings in November 2010 against Alienware’s parent company, Dell Computers. He obtained a judgment for £1,075 against Dell as it failed to file any defence to his claim. 

Dell instructed a solicitor who had Ian’s judgment set aside on the grounds it had never received his claim form and that the laptop’s warranty expired in August 2007. It suggested Ian should have bought an extended warranty for up to four years if he wanted protection beyond the first year. Dell’s solicitor offered Ian £200 in full and final settlement of his claim. Ian contacted us. 

Which? Legal advice

We advised him that it was likely that Dell had breached the contract as it was reasonable to expect that an expensive computer should last longer than three years before the graphics cards failed. It was also likely that he could claim the cost of replacing the cards if Dell wouldn’t replace them for free.

Ian offered to settle his claim for £500, the cost of one of the failed graphics cards, but Dell refused. We guided Ian through the process of preparing the documentation for court.


At the trial in June 2011, Ian was awarded the cost of replacing the defective cards and court costs – £1,192.

Legal points

The Sale of Goods Act 1979 sets out the obligations of businesses that sell goods to consumers. The Act says goods must be of ‘satisfactory quality’ when sold.

When assessing if goods are of satisfactory quality, durability is one factor taken into account; price is also relevant – you can usually expect an expensive computer to be more durable than a cheap one.

So, if your goods fail prematurely under circumstances that wouldn’t ordinarily be considered normal wear and tear or misuse, you should be able to argue the seller has breached the contract and is obliged to repair or replace the goods and, if it doesn’t do this, you can claim compensation which could be the cost of having the goods repaired or replaced by another trader.

The fact that warranties or guarantees may have expired, by the time the lack of durability is discovered, doesn’t affect your statutory rights under the Sale of Goods Act 1979.

If you have to issue proceedings, make sure to claim against the right legal entity. Many firms have trading names that are part of a limited company so if you get the information wrong, a judgment could be worthless. The named defendant should be individual names if against a sole trader or partnership, and company names should end in ‘Ltd’ or ‘plc’ if it is a registered company.