JustAnswer.com home page
A screenshot of the JustAnswer.com home page.

The internet offer from JustAnswer is tempting for anyone looking for an expert: If you need medical advice, you can get unlimited conversations with doctors. Sign up for a small fee and a seven-day trial promises “on call experts, 24/7.”

San Francisco-based JustAnswer has available experts like “lawyers, vets, tech support & mechanics.” One offer for a dermatologist says: “Try seven days for just five dollars. Then $46/month. Cancel anytime.” And therein, as the saying goes, lies the rub.

“Catherine” a consumer from California warns, “What they don’t make clear is that along with an answer comes membership. You don’t sign up for membership but you’re enrolled anyway.”

Catherine is one of a number of unhappy JustAnswer customers posting on Trustpilot, a respected consumer review website. Her complaint reflects a recent ruling by the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District in San Diego.

The case is Tina Sellers vs. JustAnswer. While neither Sellers nor her attorneys would respond for this story, legal files show the appellate court found it was difficult for consumers to understand or find out easily what they had signed up for.

“Tanya” on the JustAnswer website tells readers that her “experience in JustAnswer was the best thing I’ve ever dealt with online. Professional, courteous, caring and just down right truthful. I love this site and recommend to anyone seeking legal advice or anything else.”

We asked San Diego Attorney Monty McIntyre to review the court’s decision. He described the JustAnswer offer as “a pretty cheap buy-in at only a $5 trial, but then the customer didn’t know they were waiving their rights … and you also didn’t know you’re signing up for automatic renewals. “

What consumers were provided was a hyperlink to what the company argued was sufficient information about the deal. It reads, “By chatting and providing personal info, you understand and agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.”  

One element of the terms of service was the requirement that an unhappy client had to go to arbitration with no option for a civil trial.

“Amy” said on Trustpilot she wanted her money back and “they refused to refund it; they just canceled any future charges. I didn’t have the time or the energy to argue with the person cause they clearly didn’t care. So I am out almost $50 for NOTHING!!”

The San Diego court found “the (JustAnswer) hyperlink does not take the consumer to terms advising them they would be bound by an agreement to arbitrate. Instead, the terms are available only if the consumer scrolls through the disclaimers and clicks on a secondary link to the terms of service.”  The court also found the hyperlink “was to a separate web page that displayed the 26-page terms of service.

The court ruled the lawsuit can move forward as a class action. The next scheduled hearing will be May 6 before Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel.

JustAnswer hasn’t responded to our request for comment on the pending lawsuit.

It’s a victory for the public, says McIntyre, noting that “the big takeaway is that consumers should have protection in California” if the Internet contract provision requiring arbitration or a waiver of class action “is buried with a hyperlink, where they’re not likely to read it.”

This ruling could well change online business practices in California. McIntyre noted that “a lot of internet businesses these days are set up on a subscription model.” It’s very common for companies to say, “if you sign up, you’re going to have to sign up for automatic renewals. You can stop in the future, but you have to subscribe now.”

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.