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What does Caveat Emptor mean?

Updated on November 30, 2016

Caveat Emptor is a Latin phrase meaning "let the buyer beware". It is a doctrine pertaining to the law of sales that developed in medieval times. It was believed that the buyer should not rely on the representations of the seller regarding the merchandise sold but, instead, should inspect the goods and make his own decision. Under this doctrine the buyer takes the risk on an item he purchases and cannot complain of a defect.

Unless there is either fraud or warranty (guarantee) by the seller, the rule applies to the sale of personal property (that is, not real estate) where the buyer and seller have equal access to information about the item and the buyer is able to make personal inspection. The doctrine of caveat emptor has been greatly limited in modern times as a result of changes in marketing conditions and the growing complexity of industrial processes.

Formerly goods were relatively simple, and the buyer and seller met face to face, each having equal opportunity to inspect and understand the nature of the product. Today, however, owing to scientific and industrial development, many products are so complicated that only experts can evaluate them, and the buyer has to rely on the knowledge and good faith of the seller.

Thus there is today, in fact if not in form, a rejuvenation of the Roman legal principle of "caveat venditor" (let the seller beware), which places the responsibility for defects upon the seller.

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