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14.1 Transfer of Title

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand why it is important to know who has title in a sales transaction.
  2. Be able to explain when title shifts.
  3. Understand when a person who has no title can nevertheless pass good title on to a buyer.

Why It Is Important When Title Shifts

There are three reasons why it is important when title shifts from seller to buyer—that is, when the buyer gets title.

It Affects Whether a Sale Has Occurred

First, a sale cannot occur without a shift in title. You will recall that a sale is defined by the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) as a “transfer of title from seller to buyer for a price.” Thus if there is no shift of title, there is no sale. And there are several consequences to there being no sale, one of which is—concerning a merchant-seller—that no implied warranty of merchantability arises. (Again, as discussed in the previous chapter, an implied warranty provides that when a merchant-seller sells goods, the goods are suitable for the ordinary purpose for which such goods are used.) In a lease, of course, title remains with the lessor.

Creditors’ Rights

Second, title is important because it determines whether creditors may take the goods. If Creditor has a right to seize Debtor’s goods to satisfy a judgment or because the parties have a security agreement (giving Creditor the right to repossess Debtor’s goods), obviously it won’t do at all for Creditor to seize goods when Debtor doesn’t have title to them—they are somebody else’s goods, and seizing them would be conversion, a tort (the civil equivalent of a theft offense).

Insurable Interest

Third, title is related to who has an insurable interest. A buyer cannot legally obtain insurance unless he has an insurable interest in the goods. Without an insurable interest, the insurance contract would be an illegal gambling contract. For example, if you attempt to take out insurance on a ship with which you have no connection, hoping to recover a large sum if it sinks, the courts will construe the contract as a wager you have made with the insurance company that the ship is not seaworthy, and they will refuse to enforce it if the ship should sink and you try to collect. Thus this question arises: under the UCC, at what point does the buyer acquire an insurable interest in the goods? Certainly a person has insurable interest if she has title, but the UCC allows a person to have insurable interest with less than full title. The argument here is often between two insurance companies, each denying that its insured had insurable interest as to make it liable.

Goods Identified to the Contract

The Identification Issue

The UCC at Section 2-401 provides that “title to goods cannot pass under a contract for sale prior to their identification to the contract.” (In a lease, of course, title to the leased goods does not pass at all, only the right to possession and use for some time in return for consideration.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2A-103(1)(j).) So identification to the contract has to happen before title can shift. Identification to the contractSegregating specific goods from the mass as the ones for the immediate contract. here means that the seller in one way or another picks the goods to be sold out of the mass of inventory so that they can be delivered or held for the buyer.

Article 67 of the CISG says the same thing: “[T]he risk does not pass to the buyer until the goods are clearly identified to the contract, whether by markings on the goods, by shipping documents, by notice given to the buyer or otherwise.”

When are goods “identified”? There are two possibilities as to when identification happens.

Parties May Agree

Section 2-501(1) of the UCC says “identification can be made at any time and in any manner explicated agreed to by the parties.”

UCC Default Position

If the parties do not agree on when identification happens, the UCC default kicks in. Section 2-501(1) of the UCC says identification occurs

  1. when the contract is made if it is for the sale of goods already existing and identified;
  2. if the contract is for the sale of future goods other than those described in paragraph c., when goods are shipped, marked, or otherwise identified by the seller as goods to which the contract refers;
  3. when crops are planted or otherwise become growing crops or the young are conceived if the contract is for the sale of unborn young to be born within twelve months after contract or for the sale of corps to be harvested within twelve months or the next normal harvest seasons after contracting, whichever is longer.

Thus if Very Fast Food Inc.’s purchasing agent looks at a new type of industrial sponge on Delta Sponge Makers’ store shelf for restaurant supplies, points to it, and says, “I’ll take it,” identification happens then, when the contract is made. But if the purchasing agent wants to purchase sponges for her fast-food restaurants, sees a sample on the shelf, and says, “I want a gross of those”—they come in boxes of one hundred each—identification won’t happen until one or the other of them chooses the gross of boxes of sponges out of the warehouse inventory.

When Title Shifts

Parties May Agree

Assuming identification is done, when does title shift? The law begins with the premise that the agreement of the parties governs. Section 2-401(1) of the UCC says that, in general, “title to goods passes from the seller to the buyer in any manner and on any conditions explicitly agreed on by the parties.” Many companies specify in their written agreements at what moment the title will pass; here, for example, is a clause that appears in sales contracts of Dow Chemical Company: “Title and risk of loss in all goods sold hereunder shall pass to Buyer upon Seller’s delivery to carrier at shipping point.” Thus Dow retains title to its goods only until it takes them to the carrier for transportation to the buyer.

Because the UCC’s default position (further discussed later in this chapter) is that title shifts when the seller has completed delivery obligations, and because the parties may agree on delivery terms, they also may, by choosing those terms, effectively agree when title shifts (again, they also can agree using any other language they want). So it is appropriate to examine some delivery terms at this juncture. There are three possibilities: shipment contracts, destination contracts, and contracts where the goods are not to be moved.

Shipment Contracts

In a shipment contractSeller must see goods are on board vehicle of transportation., the seller’s obligation is to send the goods to the buyer, but not to a particular destination. The typical choices are set out in the UCC at Section 2-319:

  • F.O.B. [place of shipment]Seller must see goods are on board vehicle of transportation at place of shipment. (the place from which the goods are to be shipped goes in the brackets, as in “F.O.B. Seattle”). F.O.B. means “free on board”; the seller’s obligation, according to Section 2-504 of the UCC, is to put the goods into the possession of a carrier and make a reasonable contract for their transportation, to deliver any necessary documents so the buyer can take possession, and promptly notify the buyer of the shipment.
  • F.A.S. [named port]Seller must see goods are on dock for loading on ship at named port. (the name of the seaport from which the ship is carrying the goods goes in the brackets, as in “F.A.S. Long Beach”). F.A.S means “free alongside ship”; the seller’s obligation is to at his “expense and risk deliver the goods alongside the vessel in the manner usual in that port” and to provide the buyer with pickup instructions.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-319(2).
  • C.I.F.Cost of goods includes insurance and freight. and C. & F.Cost of goods includes freight only. These are actually not abbreviations for delivery terms, but rather they describe who pays insurance and freight. “C.I.F” means “cost, insurance, and freight”—if this term is used, it means that the contract price “includes in a lump sum the cost of the goods and the insurance and freight to the named destination.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-320. “C. & F.” means that “the price so includes cost and freight to the named destination.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-320.

Destination Contracts

In a destination contractSeller’s obligation is to get goods to a specific destination., the seller’s obligation is to see to it that the goods actually arrive at the destination. Here again, the parties may employ the use of abbreviations that indicate the seller’s duties. See the following from the UCC, Section 2-319:

  • F.O.B. [destination]Seller’s obligation is to get goods to specific destination. means the seller’s obligation is to “at his own expense and risk transport the goods to that place and there tender delivery of them” with appropriate pickup instructions to the buyer.
  • Ex-shipSeller’s obligation is to get goods off-loaded from the ship. “is the reverse of the F.A.S. term.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-322. It means “from the carrying vessel”—the seller’s obligation is to make sure the freight bills are paid and that “the goods leave the ship’s tackle or are otherwise properly unloaded.”
  • No arrival, no saleSeller must ship conforming goods but assumes no obligation that they arrive. means the “seller must properly ship conforming goods and if they arrive by any means he must tender them on arrival but he assumes no obligation that the goods will arrive unless he has caused the non-arrival.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-324. If the goods don’t arrive, or if they are damaged or deteriorated through no fault of the seller, the buyer can either treat the contract as avoided, or pay a reduced amount for the damaged goods, with no further recourse against the seller.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-613.

Goods Not to Be Moved

It is not uncommon for contracting parties to sell and buy goods stored in a grain elevator or warehouse without physical movement of the goods. There are two possibilities:

  1. Goods with documents of title. A first possibility is that the ownership of the goods is manifested by a document of titlePaper representing ownership interest in goods.—“bill of lading, dock warrant, dock receipt, warehouse receipt or order for the delivery of goods, and also any other document which in the regular course of business or financing is treated as adequately evidencing that the person in possession of it is entitled to receive, hold and dispose of the document and the goods it covers.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 1-201(15). In that case, the UCC, Section 2-401(3)(a), says that title passes “at the time when and the place where” the documents are delivered to the buyer.
  2. Goods without documents of title. If there is no physical transfer of the goods and no documents to exchange, then UCC, Section 2-401(3)(b), provides that “title passes at the time and place of contracting.”

Here are examples showing how these concepts work.

Suppose the contract calls for Delta Sponge Makers to “ship the entire lot of industrial grade Sponge No. 2 by truck or rail” and that is all that the contract says about shipment. That’s a “shipment contract,” and the UCC, Section 2-401(2)(a), says that title passes to Very Fast Foods at the “time and place of shipment.” At the moment that Delta turns over the 144 cartons of 1,000 sponges each to a trucker—perhaps Easy Rider Trucking comes to pick them up at Delta’s own factory—title has passed to Very Fast Foods.

Suppose the contract calls for Delta to “deliver the sponges on June 10 at the Maple Street warehouse of Very Fast Foods Inc.” This is a destination contract, and the seller “completes his performance with respect to the physical delivery of the goods” when it pulls up to the door of the warehouse and tenders the cartons.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-401(2)(b). “Tender” means that the party—here Delta Sponge Makers—is ready, able, and willing to perform and has notified its obligor of its readiness. When the driver of the delivery truck knocks on the warehouse door, announces that the gross of industrial grade Sponge No. 2 is ready for unloading, and asks where the warehouse foreman wants it, Delta has tendered delivery, and title passes to Very Fast Foods.

Suppose Very Fast Foods fears that the price of industrial sponges is about to soar; it wishes to acquire a large quantity long before it can use them all or even store them all. Delta does not store all of its sponges in its own plant, keeping some of them instead at Central Warehousing. Central is a baileeOne rightfully possessing goods not hers., one who has rightful possession but not title. (A parking garage often is a bailee of its customers’ cars; so is a carrier carrying a customer’s goods.) Now assume that Central has issued a warehouse receiptA written document for items warehoused, serving as evidence of title to the stored goods. (a document of title that provides proof of ownership of goods stored in a warehouse) to Delta and that Delta’s contract with Very Fast Foods calls for Delta to deliver “document of title at the office of First Bank” on a particular day. When the goods are not to be physically moved, that title passes to Very Fast Foods “at the time when and the place where” Delta delivers the document.

Suppose the contract did not specify physical transfer or exchange of documents for the purchase price. Instead, it said, “Seller agrees to sell all sponges stored on the north wall of its Orange Street warehouse, namely, the gross of industrial Sponge No. 2, in cartons marked B300–B444, to Buyer for a total purchase price of $14,000, payable in twelve equal monthly installments, beginning on the first of the month beginning after the signing of this agreement.” Then title passes at the time and place of contracting—that is, when Delta Sponge Makers and Very Fast Foods sign the contract.

So, as always under the UCC, the parties may agree on the terms they want when title shifts. They can do that directly by just saying when—as in the Dow Chemical example—or they can indirectly agree when title shifts by stipulating delivery terms: shipment, destination, goods not to be moved. If they don’t stipulate, the UCC default kicks in.

UCC Default Provision

If the parties do not stipulate by any means when title shifts, Section 2-401(2) of the UCC provides that “title passes to the buyer at the time and place at which seller completes his performance with reference to the physical delivery of the goods.” And if the parties have no term in their contract about delivery, the UCC’s default delivery term controls. It says “the place for delivery is the seller’s place of business or if he has none his residence,” and delivery is accomplished at the place when the seller “put[s] and hold[s] conforming goods at the buyer’s disposition and give[s] the buyer any notification reasonably necessary to enable him to take delivery.”Uniform Commercial Code, Sections 2-308 and 2-503.

Key Takeaway

Title is important for three reasons: it determines whether a sale has occurred, it determines rights of creditors, and it affects who has an insurable interest. Parties may explicitly agree when title shifts, or they may agree indirectly by settling on delivery terms (because absent explicit agreement, delivery controls title passage). Delivery terms to choose from include shipment contracts, destination contracts, and delivery without the goods being moved (with or without documents of title). If nothing is said about when title shifts, and the parties have not indirectly agreed by choosing a delivery term, then title shifts when delivery obligations under the contract are complete, and if there are no delivery terms, delivery happens when the seller makes the goods available at seller’s place of business (or if seller has no place of business, goods will be made available at seller’s residence)—that’s when title shifts.

Exercises

  1. Why does it matter who has title?
  2. If the parties do not otherwise agree, when does title shift from seller to buyer?
  3. Why does the question of delivery terms arise in examining when title shifts?
  4. When does title shift for goods stored in a warehouse that are not to be moved?