Talk to any contractor or carpenter — or most people who are reasonably familiar with home construction and repair — and they’ll tell you that a “4×4” piece of lumber is not actually four inches by four inches, and that it hasn’t been that way in any of our lifetimes. Yet some Home Depot and Menards customers are — literally — making a federal case out of this discrepancy, accusing the retailers of false advertising.
In two separate federal class-action lawsuits filed by the same attorney, shoppers accuse these two chains of selling “lumber products that were falsely advertised and labeled as having product dimensions that were not the actual dimensions of the products sold.”
The plaintiffs in the Menards complaint [PDF] are two customers who each purchased lumber at Menards stores in Illinois. One man purchased some “1×6” cedar planking and a piece of “4×4″ Douglas fir lumber, only to eventually find that these products’ real dimensions were .66″ x 5.25″ and 3.5″ x 3.5”, respectively. The second plaintiff claims to have been similarly “deceived and/or misled” about the true dimensions of a 4×4 post.
Those pesky 4x4s are also at the center of the Home Depot lawsuit [PDF], whose lead plaintiff says he relied on Home Depot’s advertising when purchasing this lumber.
While both lawsuits claim that the plaintiffs have been damaged by this alleged deception, neither complaint specifies what that damage may have been, other than getting slightly less wood than they expected. For instance, there is no mention of the plaintiffs being unable to finish a home renovation or of the purchased lumber being inadequate or of lower quality.
The lawsuits even acknowledge that lumber industry standards dictate that a nominal lumber dimensions are — and have been for nearly a century — slightly larger than the actual dimensions.
The plaintiffs do point out inconsistencies in the way the retailers advertise and market lumber. The Home Depot complaint notes that the retailer’s website includes actual, correct dimensions on some products, but not on others. Additionally, the lawsuits contend that retailers sell some “rough” cut wood products that are the full advertised dimensions.
In a memo in support of its motion to dismiss [PDF], the retailer argues that the plaintiffs “received exactly what they were supposed to receive – lumber that complies with applicable standards – and thus have not suffered an injury-in-fact.”
Interestingly, while Menards uses the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology minimum standards for dimensional lumber, going so far as to include the entire NIST 306-page handbook as an exhibit in the case, the retailer doesn’t mention where that NIST says it’s okay to just use nominal dimensions “if the… actual dimensions are prominently displayed to the customer, and the term ‘nominal’ or ‘nom’ is used in conjunction with any representation of nominal dimensions.”
At the same time, NIST’s Lumber Standard also states that “No inferences shall be drawn that the ‘nominal” sizes are dressed sizes.” So it’s not immediately clear if there is any legal obligation for hardware stores to communicate the actual size of lumber.
Even if the plaintiffs are able to argue that this information should have been more explicitly spelled out at the stores, they may have trouble making the case that they, or anyone else, suffered any real damage as a result.
The stores take issue with the claims of any real damage done by the use of the nominal measurements. As mentioned above, neither complaint alleges that the plaintiffs were unable to use the lumber they purchased.
“Plaintiffs’ claims are based entirely on the thickness and width of the product,” notes the Menards memorandum. “[R]egardless of what the shelf tags and product labels purportedly said or did not say, the undeniable fact remains that Plaintiffs received exactly what they were supposed to receive.”
In its memorandum supporting the motion to dismiss [PDF], Home Depot mocks the plaintiff’s notion that he would have paid less if he knew he wasn’t getting a true 4″ x 4″ piece of lumber.
“Plaintiff has not plead that retailers sell dimensional lumber measuring exactly 4 inches by 4 inches or what such product would cost,” notes Home Depot. The company admits that yes, you can buy a true 4″ x 4″ piece of wood from the same brand as the one mentioned in the lawsuit, but it’s rough sawn, and not intended to be used in the same way that a dressed piece of lumber is utilized.
Home Depot argues that if you want a dressed piece of lumber that is actually 4″ x 4″, that lumber’s nominal dimension would actually be 4.5″ x 4.5″ but “No such size or product exists.”
“Because Plaintiff could not have purchased the hypothetical product he seeks, much less at a lower price, he has no actionable injury,” argues Home Depot.
In fact, that rough-sawn post that measures a true 4″ x 4″ costs about $35 more than the “4×4” piece of wood he picked up at Home Depot.
One architect we spoke to about this case admitted that a number of homeowners or first-time DIYers are not actually familiar with the actual dimensions of lumber, but ultimately that shouldn’t matter in most cases.
“Say you’re putting in a new door or window in your house. Unless your house is really old or was built by someone using non-standard materials, the ‘2×4’ you buy at Home Depot should match what’s already in your walls,” explains the architect. “Same if you’re building a deck or some other project from a set of proper plans. Those drawings are done with the expectation that you’ll use standard-size lumber, regardless of whether you know a ‘2×4’ is actually 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches.”