What is a Legal Disclaimer?

Tim Zurick
Tim Zurick
"No Trespassing" signs are a type of legal disclaimer.
"No Trespassing" signs are a type of legal disclaimer.

A legal disclaimer is a disavowal or limitation of responsibility between parties arising from some interaction between them. The use of a disclaimer in situations ranging from contract and patent law to product and personal liability makes standardization elusive. Although the wording of a legal disclaimer might occasionally be specified by statute, there is no required language to apply in all other cases.

Disclaimers must be clearly communicated.
Disclaimers must be clearly communicated.

Potential responsibility or liability might arise from a variety of relationships. A buyer and seller negotiating a sales contract might wish to precisely define what the product is supposed to do and who pays if it doesn't. A much different type of responsibility could exist between a landowner and someone wishing to cross his or her land. Although disclaimers can be applied to such widely varying situations, their common element is the intent to define and limit a duty that one party might owe to the other.

Although a legal disclaimer might be useful in sorting out duties owed, it don't always accomplish the goal of risk limitation. A bicycle manufacturer, for example, has a duty to build bikes that can reasonably be considered safe for their intended use. A legal disclaimer of all liability printed on the box might not suffice if, for example, the manufacturer knowingly uses shoddy tubing stock for the bike's frame, resulting in an accident. Even though the cyclist might have seen the disclaimer and agreed to assume responsibility for any accidents, the manufacturing company's intentional breach of duty leaves it as vulnerable to a lawsuit as if there had been no disclaimer at all.

A legal disclaimer that is not properly communicated also might have no effect. If a trespasser fails to see a "No Trespassing" sign, it has little value as a disclaimer. Similarly, printing on a car parking receipt that a garage's liability for damage is limited to $500 US Dollars doesn't make it so. If the car owner never reads the receipt, he or she hasn't necessarily agreed to the limit. The car owner also could reasonably expect that the loss of a car worth $30,000 USD would be compensated for more than $500 USD.

Disclaimers then, are similar to contracts in that they outline a limited aspect of what is often a commercial relationship. Like a contract, a valid legal disclaimer generally has a specific and well-defined objective and is properly communicated and accepted. It also does not permit one of the parties to avoid a duty that the other party should reasonably be able to expect.

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Discussion Comments


A big problem with disclaimers is the notion that a lot of people simply don't read them. If a company makes a boilerplate, disclaimer excusing it from all sorts of things, makes it huge and puts it somewhere that it knows people probably won't read it, is that effective?


@Markerrag -- But is that really a disclaimer? It is a warning, sure, but it does not really attempt to limit the liability between the cigarette company and its consumers.

As you pointed out, tobacco companies have tried to use that warning as evidence that people ought to know if they smoke they could get cancer -- they've tried to use that warning as a disclaimer. Still, that tactic hasn't worked and probably wouldn't work even if they tried to modify that warning so it excused cigarette companies of liability.


One of the strangest legal disclaimers out there is the one on cigarettes informing people that smoking could cause cancer. Why is that on there? Because that's the law, ace. Cigarettes sold in the United States have to have that warning.

But that disclaimer doesn't really excuse the manufacturer of any liability. If a tobacco company is sued, how effective has that warning been in helping the company point out that smokers should have known they were risking cancer?

Strange stuff.

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    • "No Trespassing" signs are a type of legal disclaimer.
      By: Sascha Burkard
      "No Trespassing" signs are a type of legal disclaimer.
    • Disclaimers must be clearly communicated.
      By: simonjohnsen
      Disclaimers must be clearly communicated.