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In the case of selling goods on classified ads (particularly in the US on websites like Craigslist), can someone bring a lawsuit for lost time and cost of transportation if the described items are found to the potential buyer to be falsely represented in the ad? This is assuming nothing was actually purchased.

  • Whether you could or not, as a practical matter, it would almost never make sense economically to do so. In general, it is also almost never possible to recover for lost time. – ohwilleke May 31 '17 at 0:53
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False (deceptive) advertising is illegal in the US – in craigslist-type cases, usually pursued via state law such as RCW 9.04.010 in Washington – false advertising is a misdemeanor. Additionally, "Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby declared unlawful" (RCW 19.86.020). As articulated in Anhold v. Daniels 94 Wn.2d 40,

the conduct complained of must: (1) be unfair or deceptive; (2) be within the sphere of trade or commerce; and (3) impact the public interest.

Under RCW 19.86.093. Two+ ways in which that could be done are:

(1) Violates a statute that incorporates this chapter;

(2) Violates a statute that contains a specific legislative declaration of public interest impact; or

(3)(a) Injured other persons;

which would not be the case (though the latter might hold if you knew someone else who suffered such a loss); so the possibility of a suit relies on

(b) had the capacity to injure other persons; or (c) has the capacity to injure other persons.

If you were injured, and the cause of the injury is out there in public, then the advertisement has the capacity to injure others. Another issue is whether the act is in the "sphere of trade or commerce", which probably is not the case when a person decides to unload their lawnmower on Craigslist, but would be the case for a person who sells things through such a list (as a business).

In Anhold, the court held that

the presence of public interest is demonstrated when the proof establishes that (1) the defendant by unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of trade or commerce has induced the plaintiff to act or refrain from acting; (2) the plaintiff suffers damage brought about by such action or failure to act; and (3) the defendant's deceptive acts or practices have the potential for repetition.

RCW 19.86.090 authorizes private action in such a case, which allows a plaintiff to recover actual damages (including attorney's fees). The court also has the discretion to award treble damages (same statute). Actual damages could include e.g. the cost of flying to the sale site, the cost of an inspector, and so on.

This all assumes that the advertisement is truly deceptive, and not just hyperbolic (e.g. claiming "like new" when the item is "somewhat used") – for example advertising a rusted T-bird hood as a full, functioning car.

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