Previously unreported documents in the Lowe's 2x4 case, combined with additional comments by a key attorney in the case, have shed new light on the role that nonstandard lumber played in what ultimately led to a $1.6 million in fines against the home center's California operations.
The initial complaint in the case, filed Aug. 26 in Marin County Superior Court and obtained by REMODELING on Sept. 23, alleges in part that Lowe’s erred by advertising products normally measured in nominal dimensions “but whose actual dimensions were not in compliance with minimum size requirements for these types of products. In such cases, the structural dimensional building products were advertised by their alleged nominal dimensions; e.g. 2x4.”
In addition, the stipulation for entry of final judgment includes in its “whereas” clauses this statement: “It is the position of the People that manufacturers of building and construction products have reduced the sizes of certain building materials and construction products resulting in products that are smaller than the prior commonly recognized dimensions and in some instances the actual size of the products vary between manufacturer and product brand such that two products advertised by the same traditional dimensions may have significantly different actual measurements.” Minimum sizes are set and are maintained by several federal agencies, including the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and the quasi-governmental American Lumber Standard Committee.
These comments add clarity to what initially was misreported by REMODELING and other media as a case of Lowe's being penalized for selling dimensional lumber whose name descriptions didn't match their real sizes; for example, that what's known as a 2x4 is really more like 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches. This supposed violation never figured into the case because it's legal to use nominal sizes when describing certain building products. But what Lowe's actually did that led to a $1.6 million penalty against it still remains less than crystal clear.
For instance, in its report to members about the case, the West Coast Lumber & Building Material Association (WCLBMA) stressed another part of the case. “[I]t would appear that the complaint against Lowe’s involved certain products that are not generally regarded as ‘wood’ being labeled as such,” WCLBMA executive director Ken Dunham wrote, “and it also appears that certain other lumber products sold may not have been correctly labeled. It is not solely a matter of product labeling that was incorrect. [Emphasis WCLBMA’s] This is a long-standing complaint that was just recently resolved.”
In an interview with REMODELING late on Sept. 24, Marin County deputy district attorney Andres Perez agreed that one factor in the case was that Lowe's advertised non-wood products with dimensional descriptions reserved for products identified in the NIST guidelines. But neither that allegation nor the claim of advertising dimensional lumber that was smaller than NIST minimums "held more sway in bringing the case," he said.
During the interview, Perez also touched several times on what appears to be another factor in the case: What Lowe's knew, and when it knew it.
The complaint alleges: "At all times relevant to this Complaint, Defendant [i.e., Lowe's] was aware in some instances that their advertisements contained product dimensions that were either not the actual product dimensions or did not meet the minimum nominal product dimensions." And in the interview, Perez said that the case "is not necessarily a question that Lowe's was doing anything intentionally wrong. But if they're going to advertise a softwood lumber product as a 2x4, it must meet the nominal standard. In some cases it sold products that did not meet that standard."
That information helps explain why the final judgment touches on the question of when Lowe's would know it's breaking the rules. Getting documentation from the manufacturer appears to be one form of defense, as the final judgment says that Lowe's won't be considered in violation of state law if its ads and bin tags rely on the manufacturer's description of the product's dimensions. Lowe's also can protect itself by changing its ads, bin tags, and other promotions to add the words "actual dimensions" and those real sizes, right below the nominal sizes, when it lists a product.
In any case, Perez urges customers to be cautious. "Anybody who's making a purchase, if you're a retailer or a consumer, should make sure you get what you paid for," he said. "You should have some quality control in place."