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22.2 Contract Liability of Parties

Learning Objective

  1. Understand that a person who signs commercial paper incurs contract liability.
  2. Recognize the two types of such liability: primary and secondary.
  3. Know the conditions that must be met before secondary liability attaches.

Two types of liability can attach to those who deal in commercial paper: contract liability and warranty liability. Contract liability is based on a party’s signature on the paper. For contract liability purposes, signing parties are divided into two categories: primary parties and secondary parties.

We discuss here the liability of various parties. You may recall the discussion in Chapter 19 "Nature and Form of Commercial Paper" about accommodation parties. An accommodation party signs a negotiable instrument in order to lend his name to another party to the instrument. The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) provides that such a person “may sign the instrument as maker, drawer, acceptor, or indorser” and that in whatever capacity the person signs, he will be liable in that capacity.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-419.

Liability of Primary Parties

Two parties are primarily liable: the maker of a note and the acceptor of a draft. They are required to pay by the terms of the instrument itself, and their liability is unconditional.

Maker

By signing a promissory note, the maker promises to pay the instrument—that’s the maker’s contract and, of course, the whole point to a note. The obligation is owed to a person entitled to enforce the note or to an indorser that paid the note.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-412.

Acceptor

Recall that acceptance is the drawee’s signed engagement to honor a draft as presented. The drawee’s signature on the draft is necessary and sufficient to accept, and if that happens, the drawee as acceptor is primarily liable. The acceptance must be written on the draft by some means—any means is good. The signature is usually accompanied by some wording, such as “accepted,” “good,” “I accept.” When a bank certifies a check, that is the drawee bank’s acceptance, and the bank as acceptor becomes liable to the holder; the drawer and all indorsers prior to the bank’s acceptance are discharged. So the holder—whether a payee or an indorsee—can look only to the bank, not to the drawer, for payment.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-414(b). If the drawee varies the terms when accepting the draft, it is liable according to the terms as varied.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-413(a)(iii).

Liability of Secondary Parties

Unlike primary liability, secondary liability is conditional, arising only if the primarily liable party fails to pay. The parties for whom these conditions are significant are the drawers and the indorsers. By virtue of UCC Sections 3-414 and 3-415, drawers and indorsers engage to pay the amount of an unaccepted draft to any subsequent holder or indorser who takes it up, again, if (this is the conditional part) the (1) the instrument is dishonored and, in some cases, (2) notice of dishonor is given to the drawer or indorser.

Drawer’s Liability

If Carlos writes (more properly “draws”) a check to his landlord for $700, Carlos does not expect the landlord to turn around and approach him for the money: Carlos’s bank—the drawee—is supposed to pay from Carlos’s account. But if the bank dishonors the check—most commonly because of insufficient funds to pay it—then Carlos is liable to pay according to the instrument’s terms when he wrote the check or, if it was incomplete when he wrote it, according to its terms when completed (subject to some limitations).Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-414. Under the pre-1997 UCC, Carlos’s liability was conditioned not only upon dishonor but also upon notice of dishonor; however, under the revised UCC, notice is not required for the drawer to be liable unless the draft has been accepted and the acceptor is not a bank. Most commonly, if a check bounces, the person who wrote it is liable to make it good.

The drawer of a noncheck draft may disclaim her contractual liability on the instrument by drawing “without recourse.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-414(d).

Indorser’s Liability

Under UCC Section 3-415, an indorser promises to pay on the instrument according to its terms if it is dishonored or, if it was incomplete when indorsed, according to its terms when completed. The liability here is conditioned upon the indorser’s receipt of notice of dishonor (with some exceptions, noted in Section 22.2 "Contract Liability of Parties" on contract liability of parties. Indorsers may disclaim contractual liability by indorsing “without recourse.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-415(b).

Conditions Required for Liability

We have alluded to the point that secondary parties do not become liable unless the proper conditions are met—there are conditions precedent to liability (i.e., things have to happen before liability “ripens”).

Conditions for Liability in General

The conditions are slightly different for two classes of instruments. For an unaccepted draft, the drawer’s liability is conditioned on (1) presentment and (2) dishonor. For an accepted draft on a nonbank, or for an indorser, the conditions are (1) presentment, (2) dishonor, and (3) notice of dishonor.

Presentment

PresentmentA holder’s demand for payment from a payor. occurs when a person entitled to enforce the instrument (creditor) demands payment from the maker, drawee, or acceptor, or when a person entitled to enforce the instrument (again, the creditor) demands acceptance of a draft from the drawee.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-501.

The common-law tort that makes a person who wrongfully takes another’s property liable for that taking is conversionWrongful possession or disposition of another’s property as if it were one’s own.—it’s the civil equivalent of theft. The UCC provides that “the law applicable to conversion of personal property applies to instruments.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-420. Conversion is relevant here because if an instrument is presented for payment or acceptance and the person to whom it is presented refuses to pay, accept, or return it, the instrument is converted. An instrument is also converted if a person pays an instrument on a forged indorsement: a bank that pays a check on a forged indorsement has converted the instrument and is liable to the person whose indorsement was forged. There are various permutations on the theme of conversion; here is one example from the Official Comment:

A check is payable to the order of A. A indorses it to B and puts it into an envelope addressed to B. The envelope is never delivered to B. Rather, Thief steals the envelope, forges B’s indorsement to the check and obtains payment. Because the check was never delivered to B, the indorsee, B has no cause of action for conversion, but A does have such an action. A is the owner of the check. B never obtained rights in the check. If A intended to negotiate the check to B in payment of an obligation, that obligation was not affected by the conduct of Thief. B can enforce that obligation. Thief stole A’s property not B’s.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-420, Official Comment 1.

Dishonor

DishonorRefusal to pay or accept an instrument when it is presented. generally means failure by the obligor to pay on the instrument when presentment for payment is made (but return of an instrument because it has not been properly indorsed does not constitute dishonor). The UCC at Section 3-502 has (laborious) rules governing what constitutes dishonor and when dishonor occurs for a note, an unaccepted draft, and an unaccepted documentary draft. (A documentary draft is a draft to be presented for acceptance or payment if specified documents, certificates, statements, or the like are to be received by the drawee or other payor before acceptance or payment of the draft.)

Notice of Dishonor

Again, when acceptance or payment is refused after presentment, the instrument is said to be dishonored. The holder has a right of recourse against the drawers and indorsers, but he is usually supposed to give notice of the dishonor. Section 3-503(a) of the UCC requires the holder to give notice to a party before the party can be charged with liability, unless such notice is excused, but the UCC exempts notice in a number of circumstances (Section 3-504, discussed in Section 22.2 "Contract Liability of Parties" on contract liability). The UCC makes giving notice pretty easy: it permits any party who may be compelled to pay the instrument to notify any party who may be liable on it (but each person who is to be charged with liability must actually be notified); notice of dishonor may “be given by any commercially reasonable means including an oral, written, or electronic communication”; and no specific form of notice is required—it is “sufficient if it reasonably identifies the instrument and indicates that the instrument has been dishonored or has not been paid or accepted.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-503(b). Section 3-503(c) sets out time limits when notice of dishonor must be given for collecting banks and for other persons. An oral notice is unwise because it might be difficult to prove. Usually, notice of dishonor is given when the instrument is returned with a stamp (“NSF”—the dreaded “nonsufficient funds”), a ticket, or a memo.

Suppose—you’ll want to graph this out—Ann signs a note payable to Betty, who indorses it to Carl, who in turn indorses it to Darlene. Darlene indorses it to Earl, who presents it to Ann for payment. Ann refuses. Ann is the only primary party, so if Earl is to be paid he must give notice of dishonor to one or more of the secondary parties, in this case, the indorsers. He knows that Darlene is rich, so he notifies only Darlene. He may collect from Darlene but not from the others. If Darlene wishes to be reimbursed, she may notify Betty (the payee) and Carl (a prior indorser). If she fails to notify either of them, she will have no recourse. If she notifies both, she may recover from either. Carl in turn may collect from Betty, because Betty already will have been notified. If Darlene notifies only Carl, then she may collect only from him, but he must notify Betty or he cannot be reimbursed. Suppose Earl notified only Betty. Then Carl and Darlene are discharged. Why? Earl cannot proceed against them because he did not notify them. Betty cannot proceed against them because they indorsed subsequent to her and therefore were not contractually obligated to her. However, if, mistakenly believing that she could collect from either Carl or Darlene, Betty gave each notice within the time allowed to Earl, then he would be entitled to collect from one of them if Betty failed to pay, because they would have received notice. It is not necessary to receive notice from one to whom you are liable; Section 3-503(b) says that notice may be given by any person, so that notice operates for the benefit of all others who have rights against the obligor.

There are some deadlines for giving notice: on an instrument taken for collection, a bank must give notice before midnight on the next banking day following the day on which it receives notice of dishonor; a nonbank must give notice within thirty days after the day it received notice; and in all other situations, the deadline is thirty days after the day dishonor occurred.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-503(c).

Waived or Excused Conditions

Presentment and notice of dishonor have been discussed as conditions precedent for imposing liability upon secondarily liable parties (again, drawers and indorsers). But the UCC provides circumstances in which such conditions may be waived or excused.

Presentment Waived or Excused

Under UCC Section 3-504(a), presentment is excused if (1) the creditor cannot with reasonable diligence present the instrument; (2) the maker or acceptor has repudiated the obligation to pay, is dead, or is in insolvency proceedings; (3) no presentment is necessary by the instrument’s terms; (4) the drawer or indorsers waived presentment; (5) the drawer instructed the drawee not to pay or accept; or (6) the drawee was not obligated to the drawer to pay the draft.

Notice of Dishonor Excused

Notice of dishonor is not required if (1) the instrument’s terms do not require it or (2) the debtor waived the notice of dishonor. Moreover, a waiver of presentment is also a waiver of notice of dishonor. Delay in giving the notice is excused, too, if it is caused by circumstances beyond the control of the person giving notice and she exercised reasonable diligence when the cause of delay stopped.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-504.

In fact, in real life, presentment and notice of dishonor don’t happen very often, at least as to notes. Going back to presentment for a minute: the UCC provides that the “party to whom presentment is made [the debtor] may require exhibition of the instrument,…reasonable identification of the person demanding payment,…[and] a signed receipt [from the creditor (among other things)]” (Section 3-501). This all makes sense: for example, certainly the prudent contractor paying on a note for his bulldozer wants to make sure the creditor actually still has the note (hasn’t negotiated it to a third party) and is the correct person to pay, and getting a signed receipt when you pay for something is always a good idea. “Presentment” here is listed as a condition of liability, but in fact, most of the time there is no presentment at all:

[I]t’s a fantasy. Every month millions of homeowners make payments on the notes that they signed when they borrowed money to buy their houses. Millions of college graduates similarly make payments on their student loan notes. And millions of drivers and boaters pay down the notes that they signed when they borrowed money to purchase automobiles or vessels. [Probably] none of these borrowers sees the notes that they are paying. There is no “exhibition” of the instruments as section 3-501 [puts it]. There is no showing of identification. In some cases…there is no signing of a receipt for payment. Instead, each month, the borrowers simply mail a check to an address that they have been given.Gregory E. Maggs, “A Complaint about Payment Law Under the U.C.C.: What You See Is Often Not What You Get,” Ohio State Law Journal 68, no. 201, no. 207 (2007), http://ssrn.com/abstract=1029647.

The Official Comment to UCC Section 5-502 says about the same thing:

In the great majority of cases presentment and notice of dishonor are waived with respect to notes. In most cases a formal demand for payment to the maker of the note is not contemplated. Rather, the maker is expected to send payment to the holder of the note on the date or dates on which payment is due. If payment is not made when due, the holder usually makes a demand for payment, but in the normal case in which presentment is waived, demand is irrelevant and the holder can proceed against indorsers when payment is not received.

Key Takeaway

People who sign commercial paper become liable on the instrument by contract: they contract to honor the instrument. There are two types of liability: primary and secondary. The primarily liable parties are makers of notes and drawees of drafts (your bank is the drawee for your check), and their liability is unconditional. The secondary parties are drawers and indorsers. Their liability is conditional: it arises if the instrument has been presented for payment or collection by the primarily liable party, the instrument has been dishonored, and notice of dishonor is provided to the secondarily liable parties. The presentment and notice of dishonor are often unnecessary to enforce contractual liability.

Exercises

  1. What parties have primary liability on a negotiable instrument?
  2. What parties have secondary liability on a negotiable instrument?
  3. Secondary liability is conditional. What are the conditions precedent to liability?
  4. What conditions may be waived or excused, and how?