Judge rules HP must face class-action lawsuit

FILE - This Aug. 15, 2019, photo shows the HP logo on Hewlett-Packard printer ink cartridges at a store in Manchester, N.H. HP Inc. has failed to shunt aside claims in a lawsuit that it disables scanners and other functions on its multifunction printers whenever the ink runs low. The suit claims that HP's so-called “all-in-one” printers provide consumers no indication the devices require printer ink to scan documents or send faxes. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, file)
FILE - This Aug. 15, 2019, photo shows the HP logo on Hewlett-Packard printer ink cartridges at a store in Manchester, N.H. HP Inc. has failed to shunt aside claims in a lawsuit that it disables scanners and other functions on its multifunction printers whenever the ink runs low. The suit claims that HP's so-called “all-in-one” printers provide consumers no indication the devices require printer ink to scan documents or send faxes. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, file)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- HP has failed to shunt aside class-action legal claims that it disables the scanners on its multifunction printers when their ink runs low. Though not for lack of trying.

On Thursday, a federal judge ruled HP Inc. must face a class-action lawsuit claiming the company designs its "all-in-one" inkjet printers to disable scanning and faxing functions whenever a single printer ink cartridge runs low. The company had sought -- for the second time -- to dismiss the lawsuit on technical legal grounds.

"It is well-documented that ink is not required in order to scan or to fax a document, and it is certainly possible to manufacture an all-in-one printer that scans or faxes when the device is out of ink," the plaintiffs wrote in their complaint. "Indeed, HP designs its all-in-one printer products so they will not work without ink. Yet HP does not disclose this fact to consumers."

The lawsuit charges that HP deliberately withholds this information from consumers to boost profits from the sale of expensive ink cartridges.

Color printers require four ink cartridges -- one black and a set of three cartridges in cyan, magenta and yellow for producing colors. Some will also refuse to print if one of the color cartridges is low, even in black-and-white mode.

HP declined to comment on the issue, citing the pending litigation. The company's court filings in the case have generally not addressed the substance of the plaintiff's allegations.

In early 2022, U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman dismissed the complaint on legal grounds but did not address the lawsuit's claims. The judge allowed the plaintiffs to amend their claim and resubmit it. On Thursday, the judge largely rejected HP's request to dismiss the revised complaint, allowing the case to proceed.

All-in-one inkjet printers generally seem like a bargain compared to the cost of separate devices with scanning, copying and fax functions. For instance, HP currently sells its all-in-one OfficeJet Pro 8034e online for just $159. But its least expensive standalone scanner, the ScanJet Pro s2, lists for $369 -- more than twice the cost of the multifunction printer.

Of course, only one of these devices requires printer ink. "Printer ink is wildly expensive," Consumer Reports states in its current printer buying guide, noting that consumer ink costs can easily run more than $70 a year.

Worse, a significant amount of ink is never actually used to print documents because it's consumed by printer maintenance cycles. In 2018, Consumer Reports tested hundreds of all-in-one inkjet printers and found that, when used intermittently, many models delivered less than half of their ink to printed documents. A few managed no more than 20-30 percent.

HP isn't alone in facing such legal complaints. A different set of plaintiffs sued the U.S. unit of printer and camera maker Canon Inc. in 2021 for similarly handicapping its all-in-one printers without disclosure. The parties settled that case in late 2022. Terms were not disclosed.