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5.2 The Offer

Learning Objectives

  1. Know the definition of offer.
  2. Recognize that some proposals are not offers.
  3. Understand the three essentials of an offer: intent, communication, and definiteness.
  4. Know when an offer expires and can no longer be accepted.

Offer and acceptance may seem to be straightforward concepts, as they are when two people meet face-to-face. But in a commercial society, the ways of making offers and accepting them are nearly infinite. A retail store advertises its merchandise in the newspaper. A seller makes his offer by mail or over the Internet. A telephone caller states that his offer will stand for ten days. An offer leaves open a crucial term. An auctioneer seeks bids. An offeror gives the offeree a choice. All these situations can raise tricky questions, as can corresponding situations involving acceptances.

The Definition of Offer

The Restatement defines offerThe proposal upon which the contract is based. as “the manifestation of willingness to enter into a bargain, so made as to justify another person in understanding that his assent to that bargain is invited and will conclude it.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 24. Two key elements are implicit in that definition: the offer must be communicated, and it must be definite. Before considering these requirements, we examine the threshold question of whether an offer was intended. Let us look at proposals that may look like, but are not, offers.

Proposals That Are Not Offers

Advertisements

Most advertisements, price quotations, and invitations to bid are not construed as offers. A notice in the newspaper that a bicycle is on sale for $800 is normally intended only as an invitation to the public to come to the store to make a purchase. Similarly, a statement that a seller can “quote” a unit price to a prospective purchaser is not, by itself, of sufficient definiteness to constitute an offer; quantity, time of delivery, and other important factors are missing from such a statement. Frequently, in order to avoid construction of a statement about price and quantity as an offer, a seller or buyer may say, “Make me an offer.” Such a statement obviously suggests that no offer has yet been made. This principle usually applies to invitations for bids (e.g., from contractors on a building project). Many forms used by sales representatives as contracts indicate that by signing, the customer is making an offer to be accepted by the home office and is not accepting an offer made by the sales representative.

Although advertisements, price quotations, and the like are generally not offers, the facts in each case are important. Under the proper circumstances, an advertised statement can be construed as an offer, as shown in the well-known Lefkowitz case (Section 5.4.2 "Advertisements as Offers" at the end of the chapter), in which the offended customer acted as his own lawyer and pursued an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court against a Minneapolis department store that took back its advertised offer.

Despite the common-law rule that advertisements are normally to be considered invitations rather than offers, legislation and government regulations may offer redress. For many years, retail food stores have been subject to a rule, promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), that goods advertised as “specials” must be available and must be sold at the price advertised. It is unlawful for a retail chain not to have an advertised item in each of its stores and in sufficient quantity, unless the advertisement specifically states how much is stocked and which branch stores do not carry it. Many states have enacted consumer protection statutes that parallel the FTC rule.

Invitations to Bid

Invitations to bid are also not generally construed as offers. An auctioneer does not make offers but solicits offers from the crowd: “May I have an offer?—$500? $450? $450! I have an offer for $450. Do I hear $475? May I have an offer?”

Communication

A contract is an agreement in which each party assents to the terms of the other party. Without mutual assent there cannot be a contract, and this implies that the assent each person gives must be with reference to that of the other. If Toni places several alternative offers on the table, only one of which can be accepted, and invites Sandy to choose, no contract is formed if Sandy says merely, “I accept your terms.” Sandy must specify which offer she is assenting to.

From this general proposition, it follows that no contract can be legally binding unless an offer is in fact communicated to the offeree. If you write an e-mail to a friend with an offer to sell your car for a certain sum and then get distracted and forget to send it, no offer has been made. If your friend coincidentally e-mails you the following day and says that she wants to buy your car and names the same sum, no contract has been made. Her e-mail to you is not an acceptance, since she did not know of your offer; it is, instead, an offer or an invitation to make an offer. Nor would there have been a contract if you had sent your communication and the two e-mails crossed in cyberspace. Both e-mails would be offers, and for a valid contract to be formed, it would still be necessary for one of you to accept the other’s offer. An offer is not effective until it is received by the offeree (and that’s also true of a revocation of the offer, and a rejection of the offer by the offeree).

The requirement that an offer be communicated does not mean that every term must be communicated. You call up your friend and offer to sell him your car. You tell him the price and start to tell him that you will throw in the snow tires but will not pay for a new inspection, and that you expect to keep the car another three weeks. Impatiently, he cuts you off and says, “Never mind about all that; I’ll accept your offer on whatever terms you want.” You and he have a contract.

These principles apply to unknown offers of reward. An offer of a reward constitutes a unilateral contract that can be made binding only by performing the task for which the reward is offered. Suppose that Bonnie posts on a tree a sign offering a reward for returning her missing dog. If you saw the sign, found the dog, and returned it, you would have fulfilled the essentials of the offer. But if you chanced upon the dog, read the tag around its neck, and returned it without ever having been aware that a reward was offered, then you have not responded to the offer, even if you acted in the hope that the owner would reward you. There is no contractual obligation.

In many states, a different result follows from an offer of a reward by a governmental entity. Commonly, local ordinances provide that a standing reward of, say, $1,000 will be paid to anyone providing information that leads to the arrest and conviction of arsonists. To collect the reward, it is not necessary for a person who does furnish local authorities with such information to know that a reward ordinance exists. In contract terms, the standing reward is viewed as a means of setting a climate in which people will be encouraged to act in certain ways in the expectation that they will earn unknown rewards. It is also possible to view the claim to a reward as noncontractual; the right to receive it is guaranteed, instead, by the local ordinance.

Although a completed act called for by an unknown private offer does not give rise to a contract, partial performance usually does. Suppose Apex Bakery posts a notice offering a one-week bonus to all bakers who work at least six months in the kitchen. Charlene works two months before discovering the notice on the bulletin board. Her original ignorance of the offer will not defeat her claim to the bonus if she continues working, for the offer serves as an inducement to complete the performance called for.

Definiteness

The common law reasonably requires that an offer spell out the essential proposed terms with sufficient definitenessThe requirement that contracts be certain enough to determine liabilities.—certainty of terms that enables a court to order enforcement or measure damages in the event of a breach. As it has often been put, “The law does not make contracts for the parties; it merely enforces the duties which they have undertaken” (Simpson, 1965, p. 19). Thus a supposed promise to sell “such coal as the promisor may wish to sell” is not an enforceable term because the seller, the coal company, undertakes no duty to sell anything unless it wishes to do so. Essential terms certainly include price and the work to be done. But not every omission is fatal; for example, as long as a missing term can be fixed by referring to some external standard—such as “no later than the first frost”—the offer is sufficiently definite.

In major business transactions involving extensive negotiations, the parties often sign a preliminary “agreement in principle” before a detailed contract is drafted. These preliminary agreements may be definite enough to create contract liability even though they lack many of the terms found in a typical contract. For example, in a famous 1985 case, a Texas jury concluded that an agreement made “in principle” between the Pennzoil Company and the Getty Oil Company and not entirely finished was binding and that Texaco had unlawfully interfered with their contract. As a result, Texaco was held liable for over $10 billion, which was settled for $3 billion after Texaco went into bankruptcy.

Offers that state alternatives are definitive if each alternative is definite. David offers Sheila the opportunity to buy one of two automobiles at a fixed price, with delivery in two months and the choice of vehicle left to David. Sheila accepts. The contract is valid. If one of the cars is destroyed in the interval before delivery, David is obligated to deliver the other car. Sometimes, however, what appears to be an offer in the alternative may be something else. Charles makes a deal to sell his business to Bernie. As part of the bargain, Charles agrees not to compete with Bernie for the next two years, and if he does, to pay $25,000. Whether this is an alternative contract depends on the circumstances and intentions of the parties. If it is, then Charles is free to compete as long as he pays Bernie $25,000. On the other hand, the intention might have been to prevent Charles from competing in any event; hence a court could order payment of the $25,000 as damages for a breach and still order Charles to refrain from competition until the expiration of the two-year period.

The UCC Approach

The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is generally more liberal in its approach to definiteness than is the common law—at least as the common law was interpreted in the heyday of classical contract doctrine. Section 2-204(3) states the rule: “Even though one or more terms are left open, a contract for sale does not fail for indefiniteness if the parties have intended to make a contract and there is a reasonably certain basis for giving an appropriate remedy.”

The drafters of the UCC sought to give validity to as many contracts as possible and grounded that validity on the intention of the parties rather than on formalistic requirements. As the official comment to Section 2-204(3) notes, “If the parties intend to enter into a binding agreement, this subsection recognizes that agreement as valid in law, despite missing terms, if there is any reasonably certain basis for granting a remedy.…Commercial standards on the point of ‘indefiniteness’ are intended to be applied.” Other sections of the UCC spell out rules for filling in such open provisions as price, performance, and remedies.Chiefly, Uniform Commercial Code, Sections 2-305 through 2-310.

One of these sections, Section 2-306(1), provides that a contract term under which a buyer agrees to purchase the seller’s entire output of goods (an “outputs contract”) or a seller agrees to meet all the buyer’s requirements (a “requirements” or “needs” contract) means output or requirements that occur in good faith. A party to such a contract cannot offer or demand a quantity that is “unreasonably disproportionate” to a stated estimate or past quantities.

Duration of Offer

An offer need not be accepted on the spot. Because there are numerous ways of conveying an offer and numerous contingencies that may be part of the offer’s subject matter, the offeror might find it necessary to give the offeree considerable time to accept or reject the offer. By the same token, an offer cannot remain open forever, so that once given, it never lapses and cannot be terminated. The law recognizes seven ways by which the offer can expire (besides acceptance, of course): revocation, rejection by the offeree, counteroffer, acceptance with counteroffer, lapse of time, death or insanity of a person or destruction of an essential term, and illegality. We will examine each of these in turn.

Revocation

People are free to make contracts and, in general, to revoke them.

Revocability

The general rule, both in common law and under the UCC, is that the offeror may revoke his or her offer at any time before acceptance, even if the offer states that it will remain open for a specified period of time. Neil offers Arlene his car for $5,000 and promises to keep the offer open for ten days. Two days later, Neil calls Arlene to revoke the offer. The offer is terminated, and Arlene’s acceptance thereafter, though within the ten days, is ineffective. But if Neil had sent his revocationThe withdrawal of an offer by the offeror. (the taking back of an offer before it is accepted) by mail, and if Arlene, before she received it, had telephoned her acceptance, there would be a contract, since revocation is effective only when the offeree actually receives it. There is an exception to this rule for offers made to the public through newspaper or like advertisements. The offeror may revoke a public offering by notifying the public by the same means used to communicate the offer. If no better means of notification is reasonably available, the offer is terminated even if a particular offeree had no actual notice.

Revocation may be communicated indirectly. If Arlene had learned from a friend that Neil had sold his car to someone else during the ten-day period, she would have had sufficient notice. Any attempt to accept Neil’s offer would have been futile.

Irrevocable Offers

Not every type of offer is revocable. One type of offer that cannot be revoked is the option contractA promise to keep an offer open for some time; must be supported by consideration. (the promisor explicitly agrees for consideration to limit his right to revoke). Arlene tells Neil that she cannot make up her mind in ten days but that she will pay him $25 to hold the offer open for thirty days. Neil agrees. Arlene has an option to buy the car for $5,000; if Neil should sell it to someone else during the thirty days, he will have breached the contract with Arlene. Note that the transactions involving Neil and Arlene consist of two different contracts. One is the promise of a thirty-day option for the promise of $25. It is this contract that makes the option binding and is independent of the original offer to sell the car for $5,000. The offer can be accepted and made part of an independent contract during the option period.

Partial performance of a unilateral contract creates an option. Although the option is not stated explicitly, it is recognized by law in the interests of justice. Otherwise, an offeror could induce the offeree to go to expense and trouble without ever being liable to fulfill his or her part of the bargain. Before the offeree begins to carry out the contract, the offeror is free to revoke the offer. But once performance begins, the law implies an option, allowing the offeree to complete performance according to the terms of the offer. If, after a reasonable time, the offeree does not fulfill the terms of the offer, then it may be revoked.

Revocability under the UCC

The UCC changes the common-law rule for offers by merchants. Under Section 2-205, a firm offerA UCC option made in writing and signed by a merchant, promising to keep an offer open; needs no consideration. (a written and signed promise by a merchant to hold an offer to buy or sell goods for some period of time) is irrevocable. That is, an option is created, but no consideration is required. The offer must remain open for the time period stated or, if no time period is given, for a reasonable period of time, which may not exceed three months.

Irrevocability by Law

By law, certain types of offers may not be revoked (statutory irrevocability), despite the absence of language to that effect in the offer itself. One major category of such offers is that of the contractor submitting a bid to a public agency. The general rule is that once the period of bidding opens, a bidder on a public contract may not withdraw his or her bid unless the contracting authority consents. The contractor who purports to withdraw is awarded the contract based on the original bid and may be sued for damages for nonperformance.

Rejection by the Offeree

RejectionA manifestation of refusal to agree to the terms of an offer. (a manifestation of refusal to agree to the terms of an offer) of the offer is effective when the offeror receives it. A subsequent change of mind by the offeree cannot revive the offer. Donna calls Chuck to reject Chuck’s offer to sell his lawn mower. Chuck is then free to sell it to someone else. If Donna changes her mind and calls Chuck back to accept after all, there still is no contract, even if Chuck has made no further effort to sell the lawn mower. Having rejected the original offer, Donna, by her second call, is not accepting but making an offer to buy. Suppose Donna had written Chuck to reject, but on changing her mind, decided to call to accept before the rejection letter arrived. In that case, the offer would have been accepted.

Counteroffer

A counterofferA response to an offer that changes its terms., a response that varies the terms of an offer, is a rejection. Jones offers Smith a small parcel of land for $10,000 and says the offer will remain open for one month. Smith responds ten days later, saying he will pay $5,000. Jones’s original offer has thereby been rejected. If Jones now declines Smith’s counteroffer, may Smith bind Jones to his original offer by agreeing to pay the full $10,000? He may not, because once an original offer is rejected, all the terms lapse. However, an inquiry by Smith as to whether Jones would consider taking less is not a counteroffer and would not terminate the offer.

Acceptance with Counteroffer

This is not really an acceptance at all but is a counteroffer: an acceptance that changes the terms of the offer is a counteroffer and terminates the offer. The common law imposes a mirror image ruleCommon-law rule that the acceptance must be the same as the offer.: the acceptance must match the offer in all its particulars or the offer is rejected. However, if an acceptance that requests a change or an addition to the offer does not require the offeror’s assent, then the acceptance is valid. The broker at Friendly Real Estate offers you a house for $320,000. You accept but include in your acceptance “the vacant lot next door.” Your acceptance is a counteroffer, which serves to terminate the original offer. If, instead, you had said, “It’s a deal, but I’d prefer it with the vacant lot next door,” then there is a contract because you are not demanding that the broker abide by your request. If you had said, “It’s a deal, and I’d also like the vacant lot next door,” you have a contract, because the request for the lot is a separate offer, not a counteroffer rejecting the original proposal.

The UCC and Counteroffers

The UCC is more liberal than the common law in allowing contracts to be formed despite counteroffers and in incorporating the counteroffers into the contracts. This UCC provision is necessary because the use of routine forms for contracts is very common, and if the rule were otherwise, much valuable time would be wasted by drafting clauses tailored to the precise wording of the routine printed forms. A buyer and a seller send out documents accompanying or incorporating their offers and acceptances, and the provisions in each document rarely correspond precisely. Indeed, it is often the case that one side’s form contains terms favorable to it but inconsistent with terms on the other side’s form. Section 2-207 of the UCC attempts to resolve this “battle of the forms” by providing that additional terms or conditions in an acceptance operate as such unless the acceptance is conditioned on the offeror’s consent to the new or different terms. The new terms are construed as offers but are automatically incorporated in any contract between merchants for the sale of goods unless “(a) the offer expressly limits acceptance to the terms of the offer; (b) [the terms] materially alter it; or (c) notification of objection to them has already been given or is given within a reasonable time after notice of them is received.”

An example of terms that become part of the contract without being expressly agreed to are clauses providing for interest payments on overdue bills. Examples of terms that would materially alter the contract and hence need express approval are clauses that negate the standard warranties that sellers give buyers on their merchandise.

Frequently, parties use contract provisions to prevent the automatic introduction of new terms. A typical seller’s provision is as follows:

Amendments

Any modification of this document by the Buyer, and all additional or different terms included in Buyer’s purchase order or any other document responding to this offer, are hereby objected to. BY ORDERING THE GOODS HERE FOR SHIPMENT, BUYER AGREES TO ALL THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS CONTAINED ON BOTH SIDES OF THIS DOCUMENT.

Section 2-207 of the UCC, liberalizing the mirror image rule, is pervasive, covering all sorts of contracts, from those between industrial manufacturers to those between friends.

Lapse of Time

Offers are not open-ended; they lapse after some period of time. An offer may contain its own specific time limitation—for example, “until close of business today.”

In the absence of an expressly stated time limit, the common-law rule is that the offer expires at the end of a “reasonable” time. Such a period is a factual question in each case and depends on the particular circumstances, including the nature of the service or property being contracted for, the manner in which the offer is made, and the means by which the acceptance is expected to be made. Whenever the contract involves a speculative transaction—the sale of securities or land, for instance—the time period will depend on the nature of the security and the risk involved. In general, the greater the risk to the seller, the shorter the period of time. Karen offers to sell Gary a block of oil stocks that are fluctuating rapidly hour by hour. Gary receives the offer an hour before the market closes; he accepts by fax two hours after the market has opened the next morning and after learning that the stock has jumped up significantly. The time period has lapsed if Gary was accepting a fixed price that Karen set, but it may still be open if the price is market price at time of delivery. (Under Section 41 of the Restatement, an offer made by mail is “seasonably accepted if an acceptance is mailed at any time before midnight on the day on which the offer is received.”)

For unilateral contracts, both the common law and the UCC require the offeree to notify the offeror that he has begun to perform the terms of the contract. Without notification, the offeror may, after a reasonable time, treat the offer as having lapsed.

Death or Insanity of the Offeror

The death or insanity of the offeror prior to acceptance terminates the offer; the offer is said to die with the offeror. (Notice, however, that the death of a party to a contract does not necessarily terminate the contract: the estate of a deceased person may be liable on a contract made by the person before death.)

Destruction of Subject Matter Essential to the Offer

Destruction of something essential to the contract also terminates the offer. You offer to sell your car, but the car is destroyed in an accident before your offer is accepted; the offer is terminated.

Postoffer Illegality

A statute making unlawful the object of the contract will terminate the offer if the statute takes effect after the offer was made. Thus an offer to sell a quantity of herbal weight-loss supplements will terminate if the Food and Drug Administration outlaws the sale of such supplements.

Key Takeaway

An offer is a manifestation of willingness to enter into a contract, effective when received. It must be communicated to the offeree, be made intentionally (according to an objective standard), and be definite enough to determine a remedy in case of breach. An offer terminates in one of seven ways: revocation before acceptance (except for option contracts, firm offers under the UCC, statutory irrevocability, and unilateral offers where an offeree has commenced performance); rejection; counteroffer; acceptance with counteroffer; lapse of time (as stipulated or after a reasonable time); death or insanity of the offeror before acceptance or destruction of subject matter essential to the offer; and postoffer illegality.

Exercises

  1. Why is it said an offer is a “manifestation” of willingness to enter into a contract? How could willingness be “manifested”?
  2. Which kind of standard is used to determine whether a person has made an offer—subjective or objective?
  3. If Sandra posts a written notice offering “to the kitchen staff at Coldwater Bay (Alaska) transportation to Seattle at the end of the fishing season,” and if David, one of the maintenance workers, says to her, “I accept your offer of transportation to Seattle,” is there a contract?
  4. What are the seven ways an offer can terminate?