By Giovanna Capilli, Associate Professor of Private Law – San Raffaele University Rome
The Italian legislator has implemented the Directives (EU) 2019/771 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2019 (relating to certain aspects of contracts for the sale of goods, which amends Regulation (EU) 2017/2394 and Directive 2009/22/EC, and repealing Directive 1999/44/EC – hereinafter ‘Dir. 2019/771’) and (EU) 2019/770 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2019 (relating to certain aspects of supply contracts of digital content and digital services – hereinafter ‘Dir. 2019/770’) respectively with Legislative Decree n. 170/2021 and Legislative Decree n. 173/2021 and it modified the consumer code.
After the unsuccessful proposed Regulation for a Common European Sales Law (CESL), the European Parliament decided to use the instrument of the directive in order to enhance the growth of electronic commerce in the internal market and to establish a genuine digital single market.
The general objective of the two “twin” directives is to get a uniform regulation in the Member States on the sale of goods (including digital ones) and the supply of digital content and services, although the directive contains the possibility to derogate in some cases, so probably there will be other differences between member states (see: S. Pagliantini, Contratti di vendita di beni: armonizzazione massima, parziale e temperata della dir. UE 2019/771, in Giur. it., 2020, 1, F. Bertelli, Armonizzazione massima della Dir. 2019/771 UE e le sorti del principio di maggior tutela del consumatore, in Eur. Dir. Priv., 2019, 953).
One of the main innovations of the new Italian consumer rules is connected to the notion of good which is no longer defined as a ‘consumer good’, but only “good” which includes digital goods or goods that incorporate or are interconnected with digital content or services (Internet of Things).
The Italian implementation cannot be said to be optimal; in fact, the consumer code was modified simply by transposing the directives and keeping them separate without carrying out any coordination work.
Thus, from a textual point of view, the regulation of contracts concerning the sale of goods (including digital ones) is contained in articles 128 to 135- septies and it is separate from the regulation of contracts for the supply of digital content and digital services which is contained in articles 135 – octies to 135- vicies ter (For further information see: G. Capilli – R. Torino, Codice del consumo: le novità per i contratti di vendita e fornitura di beni digitali, Milan, 2022).
Among the most important innovations we can point out the elimination of the concept of “presumption of conformity”. In fact, subject and objective requirements are expressly regulated and both are necessary for the good to be considered compliant.
In particular, the requirement of “durability” (or, according to some authors, “duration” would have been better: see A. De Franceschi, La vendita di beni con elementi digitali, Napoli, 2021, p. 87, p. 87), introduced by the European legislator among objective compliance requirements is due to the desire to favor a longer “useful life of the goods” in the perspective of more sustainable consumption models from an environmental point of view, and represents the ability of the product to maintain its functionality and the performance required through normal use.
With reference to goods with digital elements, IT security becomes one of the fundamental requirements of the product or service.
In case of goods with digital elements, the seller will be liable for any lack of conformity of the digital content or digital service that occurs or manifests itself within two years from the time of delivery of the goods with digital elements and if the contract provides for a continuous supply. For more than two years, the seller is liable for any lack of conformity of the digital content or digital service that occurs or manifests itself in the period of time during which the digital content or digital service must be supplied under the sales contract (see art. 133 of the Italian consumer code).
A product with digital elements by its nature requires updates which are generally agreed in the sales contract to improve and enhance the element of digital content or digital service incorporated therein, expand its functionality, adapt it to technical developments and protect it from new threats to the security or serve other purposes.
Consequently, for this type of goods, the seller, who is generally responsible for the lack of conformity existing at the time of delivery of the goods, will also be responsible for the failure to supply the updates agreed in the contract, but also for the incompleteness and the defectiveness of updates over which it may not have effective control.
From this point of view, the seller’s liability becomes much more strict and it is not compensated by a contextual strengthening of the right of redress.
It should also be noted that in the case of goods with digital elements, the provision pursuant to art. 133 consumer code, paragraph 2, must be connected with that contained in art. 135 quaterdecies consumer code, with the consequence that if there is a lack of conformity, a concurrent liability of the seller and the professional (producer) could arise.
It should be noted that in the case of the supply of goods with digital content, it is probable that the digital elements are provided by a third party and not by the final seller. The contract could involve three parties: consumer, seller who supplies the good and another person who supplies the digital content that allows the good to operate.
The issues about updates are very complicated; the consumer should have the freedom to choose to install an update or not, but his decision could influence the seller’s liability and the consumer right to take remedies for lack of conformity.
In case of goods with digital content, consumer protection becomes rather articulated and complex if it takes into account that these goods could need updates for themselves, but also because they need to be compatible with a new digital environment.
Certainly, the consumer’s decision to proceed with the updates must be aware, especially considering that the lack of safety updates could lead to damage third parties and consumer could be held responsible.
In this regard, it is debated if there is an obligation to update by the consumer.
Another aspect that has been highlighted (see A. De Franceschi, op. cit., p. 93) is in which ways the seller must keep the consumer informed of the necessary updates indicated by art. 130, paragraph 2, consumer code if more time is spent from the contract and from the delivery.
The new art. 133 consumer code fixes in two years from the delivery of goods the seller’s liability for any lack of conformity and this provision also applies to goods with digital elements.
For goods with digital elements, based on the new art. 133, paragraph 2, consumer code when the sales contract provides a continuous supply of the digital content or digital service for a period of time, the seller is also liable for any lack of conformity of the digital content or digital service that occurs or became apparent within two years of the time when the goods with digital elements were delivered.
Where the supply of the digital content or digital service provides for a continuous supply for more than two years, the seller shall be liable for any lack of conformity of the digital content or digital service that occurs or becomes apparent within the period of time during which the digital content or digital service is to be supplied under the sales contract.
The new article 133 of consumer code confirms the previous provision establishing that the action of warranty expires within twenty-six months from the delivery of the goods and this solution is necessary to overcome the paradox of the simultaneous termination of the guarantee and the right to take action to enforce it (G. Capilli, Garanzie e rimedi nelle vendite ai consumatori, in I contratti del consumatore (edited by G. Capilli), Torino, 2021).
With reference to second hand goods, as in the previous regulations, (v. paragraph 4 of art. 133 consumer code) it is possible to determine a different period for warranty but not less than one year and it is possible to determine that limitation also for the action of warranty (see for a comment: G. Capilli, Termini di garanzia e termini di prescrizione nella vendita di beni (anche usati) ai consumatori, in M. Astone (edited by), Il diritto dei consumatori nella giurisprudenza della Corte di Giustizia Europea, Pisa, 2020, p. 61).
With the new provision contained in article 133 consumer code, the warranty and prescription period for second hand goods may be limited to a period of not less than one year, and this because a different treatment of second-hand goods was deemed justifiable; contractual freedom is encouraged, at the same time the consumer is assured of being informed both of the nature of the good as second-hand and of the liability period or the shortened limitation period (see recital 43 of directive 2019/771).
The new article 135 consumer code change the rules on the burden of proof; the preview legislation indicated six months as a time in which the lack of conformity could appear, while now the time is one year.This means that during this period the burden of proof is on the seller that needs to demonstrate that the product is in conformity. Although the EU legislator had left the states free to (maintain or) introduce a two-year term, the Italian legislator did not take this option also because it is applied in few Member States. So that, without prejudice to evidence to the contrary, it is assumed that any lack of conformity that occurs within one year from the time the good was delivered already existed on that date, unless this hypothesis is incompatible with the nature of the good (i.e. in case of perishable goods such as flowers or goods that can only be used once) or with the nature of the lack of conformity (i.e. a lack of conformity that can only result from an action by the consumer or from an evident external cause which occurred following the delivery of the goods to the consumer).
In the event of a lack of conformity, a fundamental principle is codified: the consumer must be able to choose the most appropriate remedy, but his freedom of choice is not absolute, but rather limited by a series of circumstances which must be considered, in a collaborative perspective between the parties and in good faith in the execution of the contract, precisely in order to avoid making excessive and unjustified burdens fall on the seller. Therefore, the following must be considered: a) the value the goods would have if there were no lack of conformity; b) the significance of the lack of conformity; c) whether the alternative remedy could be provided without significant inconvenience to the consumer.
The seller at the time of the communication of the defect can offer the consumer any remedy but this is not binding for the consumer who will be free to refuse it and choose another one.
It should be noted, among the regulatory changes, that in compliance with the invitation contained in recital 46 and in order to ensure that consumers have a higher level of protection, it is eliminated the obligation to notify the defect (in the preview regulation the consumer ought to notify the defect in the term of two-month from the discover).
Another question that is resolved by the new legislation is that relating to possible and repeated defects that may affect the same good. In this case, consumers could obtain a price reduction or resolution despite the seller’s attempt to restore the conformity of the good.
These are situations in which it is justifiable that the consumer needs to have a price reduction or to terminate the contract immediately. If it can be considered normal to allow the seller (with reference to specific goods, for example because they are very expensive) to bring the goods into conformity, it is also true that when a lack of conformity becomes apparent subsequently the trust of the consumer on the seller’s ability to bring the goods into conformity cannot be maintained.
The consumer may request the proportional reduction of the price or to terminate the contract if the lack of conformity is so serious as to justify the request for such remedies.
The question, therefore, is to verify when a lack of conformity can be considered “so serious” as to allow the immediate termination of the contract or the reduction of the price.
The EU legislator, through this provision, wanted to allow the consumer a faster way to terminate the contract if, due to the seriousness of the defect, he is not interested in retaining the good. “Exit” from the contract, however, facilitated by the fact that the consumer, based on the provisions of paragraph 2 of art. 135 quater, could terminate the contract with a direct declaration to the seller containing the manifestation of the will to terminate the sales contract, this is a hypothesis of out-of-court resolution (eg in the case of delivery of aliud pro alio) which should be coordinated with the provisions of art. 61 of the Italian consumer code.
The consumer shall have the right to withhold payment of any outstanding part of the price or a part thereof until the seller has fulfilled the seller’s obligations, so the Italian legislator has expressly recalled the article 1460 of the civil code, but has also made use of the option referred to in paragraph 7 of art. 13 of the directive, which provides that the Member States can establish whether and to what extent, upon the occurrence of the lack of conformity, the consumer’s cooperation may affect his right to avail himself of the remedies.
Finally, it should be noted that the provision contained in article 135 septies incorporates the provisions of art. 3, paragraph 6, as well as art. 4 in relation to the level of harmonization, and clarifies the relationship between the rules contained in the civil code and in the consumer code. So the consumer code will be applied in the case of B2C sales of goods, while the civil code will be applied for the question concerning the formation, validity and effectiveness of contracts, including the consequences of termination of the contract and compensation for damage