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Chapter 10 Real Assent

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should understand the following:

  1. Contracts require “a meeting of the minds” between competent parties, and if there is no such “meeting,” the agreement is usually voidable.
  2. Parties must enter the contract voluntarily, without duress or undue influence.
  3. Misrepresentation or fraud, when proven, vitiates a contract.
  4. A mistake may make a contract voidable.
  5. Parties to a contract must have capacity—that is, not labor under infancy, intoxication, or insanity.

We turn to the second of the four requirements for a valid contract. In addition to manifestation of assent, a party’s assent must be real; he or she must consent to the contract freely, with adequate knowledge, and must have capacity. The requirement of real assent raises the following major questions:

  1. Did the parties enter into the contract of their own free will, or was one forced to agree under duress or undue influence?
  2. Did the parties enter into the contract with full knowledge of the facts, or was one or both led to the agreement through fraud or mistake?
  3. Did both parties have the capacity to make a contract?

10.1 Duress and Undue Influence

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize that if a person makes an agreement under duress (being forced to enter a contract against his or her will), the agreement is void.
  2. Understand what undue influence is and what the typical circumstances are when it arises to make a contract voidable.

Duress

When a person is forced to do something against his or her will, that person is said to have been the victim of duressA threat of improper action to induce a person to make a contract.—compulsion. There are two types of duress: physical duress and duress by improper threat. A contract induced by physical violence is void.

Physical Duress

If a person is forced into entering a contract on threat of physical bodily harm, he or she is the victim of physical duressThe threat of physical harm that wrongfully induces a party to contract.. It is defined by the Restatement (Second) of Contracts in Section 174: “If conduct that appears to be a manifestation of assent by a party who does not intend to engage in that conduct is physically compelled by duress, the conduct is not effective as a manifestation of assent.”

Comment (a) to Section 174 provides in part, “This Section involves an application of that principle to those relatively rare situations in which actual physical force has been used to compel a party to appear to assent to a contract.…The essence of this type of duress is that a party is compelled by physical force to do an act that he has no intention of doing. He is, it is sometimes said, ‘a mere mechanical instrument.’ The result is that there is no contract at all, or a ‘void contract’ as distinguished from a voidable one” (emphasis added).

The Restatement is undoubtedly correct that there are “relatively rare situations in which actual physical force” is used to compel assent to a contract. Extortion is a crime.

Duress by Threat

The second kind of duress is duress by threat; it is more common than physical duress. Here the perpetrator threatens the victim, who feels there is no reasonable alternative but to assent to the contract. It renders the contract voidable. This rule contains a number of elements.

First, the threat must be improper. Second, there must be no reasonable alternative. If, for example, a supplier threatens to hold up shipment of necessary goods unless the buyer agrees to pay more than the contract price, this would not be duress if the buyer could purchase identical supplies from someone else. Third, the test for inducement is subjective. It does not matter that the person threatened is unusually timid or that a reasonable person would not have felt threatened. The question is whether the threat in fact induced assent by the victim. Such facts as the victim’s belief that the threatener had the ability to carry out the threat and the length of time between the threat and assent are relevant in determining whether the threat did prompt the assent.

There are many types of improper threats that might induce a party to enter into a contract: threats to commit a crime or a tort (e.g., bodily harm or taking of property), to instigate criminal prosecution, to instigate civil proceedings when a threat is made in bad faith, to breach a “duty of good faith and fair dealing under a contract with the recipient,” or to disclose embarrassing details about a person’s private life.

Jack buys a car from a local used-car salesman, Mr. Olson, and the next day realizes he bought a lemon. He threatens to break windows in Olson’s showroom if Olson does not buy the car back for $2,150, the purchase price. Mr. Olson agrees. The agreement is voidable, even though the underlying deal is fair, if Olson feels he has no reasonable alternative and is frightened into agreeing. Suppose Jack knows that Olson has been tampering with his cars’ odometers, a federal offense, and threatens to have Olson prosecuted if he will not repurchase the car. Even though Olson may be guilty, this threat makes the repurchase contract voidable, because it is a misuse for personal ends of a power (to go to the police) given each of us for other purposes. If these threats failed, suppose Jack then tells Olson, “I’m going to haul you into court and sue your pants off.” If Jack means he will sue for his purchase price, this is not an improper threat, because everyone has the right to use the courts to gain what they think is rightfully theirs. But if Jack meant that he would fabricate damages done him by a (falsely) claimed odometer manipulation, that would be an improper threat. Although Olson could defend against the suit, his reputation would suffer in the meantime from his being accused of odometer tampering.

A threat to breach a contract that induces the victim to sign a new contract could be improper. Suppose that as part of the original purchase price, Olson agrees to make all necessary repairs and replace all failed parts for the first ninety days. At the end of one month, the transmission dies, and Jack demands a replacement. Olson refuses to repair the car unless Jack signs a contract agreeing to buy his next car from Olson. Whether this threat is improper depends on whether Jack has a reasonable alternative; if a replacement transmission is readily available and Jack has the funds to pay for it, he might have an alternative in suing Olson in small claims court for the cost. But if Jack needs the car immediately and he is impecunious, then the threat would be improper and the contract voidable. A threat to breach a contract is not necessarily improper, however. It depends on whether the new contract is fair and equitable because of unanticipated circumstances. If, for example, Olson discovers that he must purchase a replacement transmission at three times the anticipated cost, his threat to hold up work unless Jack agrees to pay for it might be reasonable.

Undue Influence

The Restatement of Contracts (Second) characterizes undue influenceImproper use of power or trust in a way that deprives a person of free will and substitutes another’s objective. as “unfair persuasion.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 177. It is a milder form of duress than physical harm or threats. The unfairness does not lie in any misrepresentation; rather, it occurs when the victim is under the domination of the persuader or is one who, in view of the relationship between them, is warranted in believing that the persuader will act in a manner detrimental to the victim’s welfare if the victim fails to assent. It is the improper use of trust or power to deprive a person of free will and substitute instead another’s objective. Usually the fact pattern involves the victim being isolated from receiving advice except from the persuader. Falling within this rule are situations where, for example, a child takes advantage of an infirm parent, a doctor takes advantage of an ill patient, or a lawyer takes advantage of an unknowledgeable client. If there has been undue influence, the contract is voidable by the party who has been unfairly persuaded. Whether the relationship is one of domination and the persuasion is unfair is a factual question. The answer hinges on a host of variables, including “the unfairness of the resulting bargain, the unavailability of independent advice, and the susceptibility of the person persuaded.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 177(b). See Section 10.5.1 "Undue Influence", Hodge v. Shea.

Key Takeaway

A contract induced by physical duress—threat of bodily harm—is void; a contract induced by improper threats—another type of duress—is voidable. Voidable also are contracts induced by undue influence, where a weak will is overborne by a stronger one.

Exercises

  1. What are the two types of duress?
  2. What are the elements necessary to support a claim of undue influence?

10.2 Misrepresentation

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the two types of misrepresentation: fraudulent and nonfraudulent.
  2. Distinguish between fraudulent misrepresentation in the execution and fraudulent misrepresentation in the inducement.
  3. Know the elements necessary to prove fraudulent and nonfraudulent misrepresentation.
  4. Recognize the remedies for misrepresentation.

General Description

The two types of misrepresentation are fraudulent and nonfraudulent. Within the former are fraud in the execution and fraud in the inducement. Within the latter are negligent misrepresentation and innocent misrepresentation.

MisrepresentationA false or misleading statement or impression given that induces a party to contract. is a statement of fact that is not consistent with the truth. If misrepresentation is intentional, it is fraudulent misrepresentation; if it is not intentional, it is nonfraudulent misrepresentation, which can be either negligent or innocent.

In further taxonomy, courts distinguish between fraud in the execution and fraud in the inducement. Fraud in the executionCausing a person to sign a legal document while that person believes he or she is signing some other type of document. is defined by the Restatement as follows: “If a misrepresentation as to the character or essential terms of a proposed contract induces conduct that appears to be a manifestation of assent by one who neither knows nor has reasonable opportunity to know of the character or essential terms of the proposed contract, his conduct is not effective as a manifestation of assent.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 163. For example, Alphonse and Gaston decide to sign a written contract incorporating terms to which they have agreed. It is properly drawn up, and Gaston reads it and approves it. Before he can sign it, however, Alphonse shrewdly substitutes a different version to which Gaston has not agreed. Gaston signs the substitute version. There is no contract. There has been fraud in the execution.

Fraud in the inducementDeceit or trick to cause someone to contract to his or her disadvantage. is more common. It involves some misrepresentation about the subject of the contract that induces assent. Alphonse tells Gaston that the car Gaston is buying from Alphonse has just been overhauled—which pleases Gaston—but it has not been. This renders the contract voidable.

Fraudulent Misrepresentation

Necessary to proving fraudulent misrepresentationMisrepresentation with the intention to deceive. (usually just “fraud,” though technically “fraud” is the crime and “fraudulent misrepresentation” is the civil wrong) is a misstatement of fact that is intentionally made and justifiably relied upon.

Misstatement of Fact

Again, generally, any statement not in accord with the facts (a fact is something amenable to testing as true) is a misrepresentation. Falsity does not depend on intent. A typist’s unnoticed error in a letter (inadvertently omitting the word “not,” for example, or transposing numbers) can amount to a misrepresentation on which the recipient may rely (it is not fraudulent misrepresentation). A half-truth can amount to a misrepresentation, as, for example, when the seller of a hotel says that the income is from both permanent and transient guests but fails to disclose that the bulk of the income is from single-night stopovers by seamen using the hotel as a brothel.Ikeda v. Curtis, 261 P.2d 684 (Wash. 1951).

Concealment

Another type of misrepresentation is concealment. It is an act that is equivalent to a statement that the facts are to the contrary and that serves to prevent the other party from learning the true statement of affairs; it is hiding the truth. A common example is painting over defects in a building—by concealing the defects, the owner is misrepresenting the condition of the property. The act of concealment need not be direct; it may consist of sidetracking the other party from gaining necessary knowledge by, for example, convincing a third person who has knowledge of the defect not to speak. Concealment is always a misrepresentation.

Nondisclosure

A more passive type of concealment is nondisclosure. Although generally the law imposes no obligation on anyone to speak out, nondisclosure of a fact can operate as a misrepresentation under certain circumstances. This occurs, for example, whenever the other party has erroneous information, or, as Reed v. King (Section 10.5.2 "Misrepresentation by Concealment") shows, where the nondisclosure amounts to a failure to act in good faith, or where the party who conceals knows or should know that the other side cannot, with reasonable diligence, discover the truth.

In a remarkable 1991 case out of New York, a New York City stockbroker bought an old house upstate (basically anyplace north of New York City) in the village of Nyack, north of New York City, and then wanted out of the deal when he discovered—the defendant seller had not told him—that it was “haunted.” The court summarized the facts: “Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists [ghosts], reportedly seen by defendant seller and members of her family on numerous occasions over the last nine years. Plaintiff promptly commenced this action seeking rescission of the contract of sale. Supreme Court reluctantly dismissed the complaint, holding that plaintiff has no remedy at law in this jurisdiction.”

The high court of New York ruled he could rescind the contract because the house was “haunted as a matter of law”: the defendant had promoted it as such on village tours and in Reader’s Digest. She had concealed it, and no reasonable buyer’s inspection would have revealed the “fact.” The dissent basically hooted, saying, “The existence of a poltergeist is no more binding upon the defendants than it is upon this court.”Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (N.Y. 1991).

Statement Made False by Subsequent Events

If a statement of fact is made false by later events, it must be disclosed as false. For example, in idle chatter one day, Alphonse tells Gaston that he owns thirty acres of land. In fact, Alphonse owns only twenty-seven, but he decided to exaggerate a little. He meant no harm by it, since the conversation had no import. A year later, Gaston offers to buy the “thirty acres” from Alphonse, who does not correct the impression that Gaston has. The failure to speak is a nondisclosure—presumably intentional, in this situation—that would allow Gaston to rescind a contract induced by his belief that he was purchasing thirty acres.

Statements of Opinion

An opinion, of course, is not a fact; neither is sales puffery. For example, the statements “In my opinion this apple is very tasty” and “These apples are the best in the county” are not facts; they are not expected to be taken as true. Reliance on opinion is hazardous and generally not considered justifiable.

If Jack asks what condition the car is in that he wishes to buy, Mr. Olson’s response of “Great!” is not ordinarily a misrepresentation. As the Restatement puts it: “The propensity of sellers and buyers to exaggerate the advantages to the other party of the bargains they promise is well recognized, and to some extent their assertions must be discounted.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 168(d). Vague statements of quality, such as that a product is “good,” ought to suggest nothing other than that such is the personal judgment of the opinion holder.

Despite this general rule, there are certain exceptions that justify reliance on opinions and effectively make them into facts. Merely because someone is less astute than the one with whom she is bargaining does not give rise to a claim of justifiable reliance on an unwarranted opinion. But if the person is inexperienced and susceptible or gullible to blandishments, the contract can be voided, as illustrated in Vokes v. Arthur Murray, Inc. in Section 10.5.3 "Misrepresentation by Assertions of Opinion".

Misstatement of Law

Incorrect assertions of law usually do not give rise to any relief, but sometimes they do. An assertion that “the city has repealed the sales tax” or that a court has cleared title to a parcel of land is a statement of fact; if such assertions are false, they are governed by the same rules that govern misrepresentations of fact generally. An assertion of the legal consequences of a given set of facts is generally an opinion on which the recipient relies at his or her peril, especially if both parties know or assume the same facts. Thus, if there is a lien on a house, the seller’s statement that “the courts will throw it out, you won’t be bothered by it” is an opinion. A statement that “you can build a five-unit apartment on this property” is not actionable because, at common law, people are supposed to know what the local and state laws are, and nobody should rely on a layperson’s statement about the law. However, if the statement of law is made by a lawyer or real estate broker, or some other person on whom a layperson may justifiably rely, then it may be taken as a fact and, if untrue, as the basis for a claim of misrepresentation. (Assertions about foreign laws are generally held to be statements of fact, not opinion.)

Assertions of Intention

Usually, assertions of intention are not considered facts. The law allows considerable leeway in the honesty of assertions of intention. The Restatement talks in terms of “a misrepresentation of intention…consistent with reasonable standards of fair dealing.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 171(1). The right to misstate intentions is useful chiefly in the acquisition of land; the cases permit buyers to misrepresent the purpose of the acquisition so as not to arouse the suspicion of the seller that the land is worth considerably more than his asking price. To be a misrepresentation that will permit rescission, an assertion of intention must be false at the time made; that is, the person asserting an intention must not then have intended it. That later he or she does not carry out the stated intention is not proof that there was no intention at the time asserted. Moreover, to render a contract voidable, the false assertion of intention must be harmful in some way to other interests of the recipient. Thus, in the common example, the buyer of land tells the seller that he intends to build a residence on the lot, but he actually intends to put up a factory and has lied because he knows that otherwise the seller will not part with it because her own home is on an adjacent lot. The contract is voidable by the seller. So a developer says, as regards the picturesque old barn on the property, “I’ll sure try to save it,” but after he buys the land he realizes it would be very expensive (and in the way), so he does not try to save it. No misrepresentation.

Intentionally Made Misrepresentation

The second element necessary to prove fraud is that the misrepresentation was intentionally made. A misrepresentation is intentionally made “if the maker intends his assertion to induce a party to manifest his assent and the maker (a) knows or believes that the assertion is not in accord with the facts, or (b) does not have the confidence that he states or implies in the truth of the assertion, or (c) knows that he does not have the basis that he states or implies for the assertion.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 162(1).

The question of intent often has practical consequences in terms of the remedy available to the plaintiff. If the misrepresentation is fraudulent, the plaintiff may, as an alternative to avoiding the contract, recover damages. Some of this is discussed in Section 10.2.4 "Remedies" and more fully in Chapter 16 "Remedies", where we see that some states would force the plaintiff to elect one of these two remedies, whereas other states would allow the plaintiff to pursue both remedies (although only one type of recovery would eventually be allowed). If the misrepresentation is not intentional, then the common law allowed the plaintiff only the remedy of rescission. But the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), Section 2-721, allows both remedies in contracts for the sale of goods, whether the misrepresentation is fraudulent or not, and does not require election of remedies.

Reliance

The final element necessary to prove fraud is reliance by the victim. He or she must show that the misrepresentation induced assent—that is, he or she relied on it. The reliance need not be solely on the false assertion; the defendant cannot win the case by demonstrating that the plaintiff would have assented to the contract even without the misrepresentation. It is sufficient to avoid the contract if the plaintiff weighed the assertion as one of the important factors leading him to make the contract, and he believed it to be true. The person who asserts reliance to avoid a contract must have acted in good faith and reasonably in relying on the false assertion. Thus if the victim failed to read documents given him that truly stated the facts, he cannot later complain that he relied on a contrary statement, as, for example, when the purchaser of a car dealership was told the inventory consisted of new cars, but the supporting papers, receipt of which he acknowledged, clearly stated how many miles each car had been driven. If Mr. Olson tells Jack that the car Jack is interested in is “a recognized classic,” and if Jack doesn’t care a whit about that but buys the car because he likes its tail fins, he will have no case against Mr. Olson when he finds out the car is not a classic: it didn’t matter to him, and he didn’t rely on it.

Ordinarily, the person relying on a statement need not verify it independently. However, if verification is relatively easy, or if the statement is one that concerns matters peculiarly within the person’s purview, he or she may not be held to have justifiably relied on the other party’s false assertion. Moreover, usually the rule of reliance applies to statements about past events or existing facts, not about the occurrence of events in the future.

Nonfraudulent Misrepresentation

Nonfraudulent misrepresentation may also be grounds for some relief. There are two types: negligent misrepresentation and innocent misrepresentation.

Negligent Misrepresentation

Where representation is caused by carelessness, it is negligent misrepresentationA false or misleading statement or impression made because of carelessness.. To prove it, a plaintiff must show a negligent misstatement of fact that is material and justifiably relied upon.

Negligent

As an element of misrepresentation, “negligent” here means the party who makes the representation was careless. A potential buyer of rural real estate asks the broker if the neighborhood is quiet. The broker assures her it is. In fact, the neighbors down the road have a whole kennel of hunting hounds that bark a lot. The broker didn’t know that; she just assumed the neighborhood was quiet. That is negligence: failure to use appropriate care.

Misstatement of Fact

Whether a thing is a fact may be subject to the same general analysis used in discussing fraudulent misrepresentation. (A person could negligently conceal a fact, or negligently give an opinion, as in legal malpractice.)

Materiality

A material misrepresentation is one that “would be likely to induce a reasonable person to manifest his assent” or that “the maker knows…would be likely to induce the recipient to do so.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 162(2). An honestly mistaken statement that the house for sale was built in 1922 rather than 1923 would not be the basis for avoiding the contract because it is not material unless the seller knew that the buyer had sentimental or other reasons for purchasing a house built in 1922.

We did not mention materiality as an element of fraud; if the misrepresentation is fraudulent, the victim can avoid the contract, no matter the significance of the misrepresentation. So although materiality is not technically required for fraudulent misrepresentation, it is usually a crucial factor in determining whether the plaintiff did rely. Obviously, the more immaterial the false assertion, the less likely it is that the victim relied on it to his detriment. This is especially the case when the defendant knows that he does not have the basis that he states for an assertion but believes that the particular point is unimportant and therefore immaterial. And of course it is usually not worth the plaintiff’s while to sue over an immaterial fraudulent misrepresentation. Consequently, for practical purposes, materiality is an important consideration in most cases. Reed v. King (Section 10.5.2 "Misrepresentation by Concealment") discusses materiality (as well as nondisclosure).

Justifiable Reliance

The issues here for negligent misrepresentation are the same as those set out for fraudulent misrepresentation.

Negligent misrepresentation implies culpability and is usually treated the same as fraudulent misrepresentation; if the representation is not fraudulent, however, it cannot be the basis for rescission unless it is also material.

Innocent Misrepresentation

The elements necessary to prove innocent misrepresentationA misrepresentation made by one who believes it is true. are, reasonably enough, based on what we’ve looked at so far, as follows: an innocent misstatement of fact that is material and justifiably relied upon.

It is not necessary here to go over the elements in detail. The issues are the same as previously discussed, except now the misrepresentation is innocent. The plaintiffs purchased the defendants’ eighteen-acre parcel on the defendants’ representation that the land came with certain water rights for irrigation, which they believed was true. It was not true. The plaintiffs were entitled to rescission on the basis of innocent misrepresentation.Lesher v. Strid, 996 P.2d 988 (Or. Ct. App. 2000).

Remedies

Remedies will be taken up in Chapter 16 "Remedies", but it is worth noting the difference between remedies for fraudulent misrepresentation and remedies for nonfraudulent misrepresentation.

Fraudulent misrepresentation has traditionally given the victim the right to rescind the contract promptly (return the parties to the before-contract status) or affirm it and bring an action for damages caused by the fraud, but not both.Merritt v. Craig, 753 A.2d 2 (Md. Ct. App. 2000). The UCC (Section 2-721) has rejected the “election of remedies” doctrine; it allows cumulative damages, such that the victim can both return the goods and sue for damages. And this is the modern trend for fraudulent misrepresentation: victims may first seek damages, and if that does not make them whole, they may seek rescission.Ehrman v. Mann, 979 So.2d 1011 (Fla. Ct. App. 2008). In egregious cases of fraud where the defendant has undertaken a pattern of such deceit, the rare civil remedy of punitive damages may be awarded against the defendant.

One further note: the burden of proof for fraudulent misrepresentation is that it must be proved not just “by a preponderance of the evidence,” as in the typical civil case, but rather “by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence”; the fact finder must believe the claim of fraud is very probably true.Kirkham v. Smith, 23 P.3d 10 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001).

Key Takeaway

Misrepresentation may be of two types: fraudulent (in the execution or in the inducement) and nonfraudulent (negligent or innocent). Each type has different elements that must be proved, but in general there must be a misstatement of fact by some means that is intentionally made (for fraud), material (for nonfraudulent), and justifiably relied upon.

Exercises

  1. Distinguish between fraudulent misrepresentation and nonfraudulent misrepresentation, between fraud in the execution and fraud in the inducement, and between negligent and innocent misrepresentation.
  2. List the elements that must be shown to prove the four different types of misrepresentation noted in Exercise 1.
  3. What is the difference between the traditional common-law approach to remedies for fraud and the UCC’s approach?

10.3 Mistake

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize under what circumstances a person may be relieved of a unilateral mistake.
  2. Recognize when a mutual mistake will be grounds for relief, and the types of mutual mistakes.

In discussing fraud, we have considered the ways in which trickery by the other party makes a contract void or voidable. We now examine the ways in which the parties might “trick” themselves by making assumptions that lead them mistakenly to believe that they have agreed to something they have not. A mistake is “a belief about a fact that is not in accord with the truth.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 151.

Mistake by One Party

Unilateral Mistake

Where one party makes a mistake, it is a unilateral mistakeA mistake made by one party to a contract; relief is not usually granted.. The rule: ordinarily, a contract is not voidable because one party has made a mistake about the subject matter (e.g., the truck is not powerful enough to haul the trailer; the dress doesn’t fit).

Exceptions

If one side knows or should know that the other has made a mistake, he or she may not take advantage of it. A person who makes the mistake of not reading a written document will usually get no relief, nor will relief be afforded to one whose mistake is caused by negligence (a contractor forgets to add in the cost of insulation) unless the negligent party would suffer unconscionable hardship if the mistake were not corrected. Courts will allow the correction of drafting errors in a contract (“reformation”) in order to make the contract reflect the parties’ intention.Sikora v. Vanderploeg, 212 S.W.3d 277 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006).

Mutual Mistake

In the case of mutual mistakeErroneous belief shared and relied on by both parties to a contract for which a court often grants relief.—both parties are wrong about the subject of the contract—relief may be granted.

The Restatement sets out three requirements for successfully arguing mutual mistake.Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 152. The party seeking to avoid the contract must prove that

  1. the mistake relates to a “basic assumption on which the contract was made,”
  2. the mistake has a material effect on the agreed exchange of performances,
  3. the party seeking relief does not bear the risk of the mistake.

Basic assumption is probably clear enough. In the famous “cow case,” the defendant sold the plaintiff a cow—Rose of Abalone—believed by both to be barren and thus of less value than a fertile cow (a promising young dairy cow in 2010 might sell for $1,800).Sherwood v. Walker, 33 N.W. 919 (1887). Just before the plaintiff was to take Rose from the defendant’s barn, the defendant discovered she was “large with calf”; he refused to go on with the contract. The court held this was a mutual mistake of fact—“a barren cow is substantially a different creature than a breeding one”—and ruled for the defendant. That she was infertile was “a basic assumption,” but—for example—that hay would be readily available to feed her inexpensively was not, and had hay been expensive, that would not have vitiated the contract.

Material Effect on the Agreed-to Exchange of Performance

“Material effect on the agreed-to exchange of performance” means that because of the mutual mistake, there is a significant difference between the value the parties thought they were exchanging compared with what they would exchange if the contract were performed, given the standing facts. Again, in the cow case, had the seller been required to go through with the deal, he would have given up a great deal more than he anticipated, and the buyer would have received an unagreed-to windfall.

Party Seeking Relief Does Not Bear the Risk of the Mistake

Assume a weekend browser sees a painting sitting on the floor of an antique shop. The owner says, “That old thing? You can have it for $100.” The browser takes it home, dusts it off, and hangs it on the wall. A year later a visitor, an expert in art history, recognizes the hanging as a famous lost El Greco worth $1 million. The story is headlined; the antique dealer is chagrined and claims the contract for sale should be voided because both parties mistakenly thought they were dickering over an “old, worthless” painting. The contract is valid. The owner is said to bear the risk of mistake because he contracted with conscious awareness of his ignorance: he knew he didn’t know what the painting’s possible value might be, but he didn’t feel it worthwhile to have it appraised. He gambled it wasn’t worth much, and lost.

Key Takeaway

A mistake may be unilateral, in which case no relief will be granted unless the other side knows of the mistake and takes advantage of it. A mistake may be mutual, in which case relief may be granted if it is about a basic assumption on which the contract was made, if the mistake has a material effect on the agreed-to exchange, and if the person adversely affected did not bear the risk of the mistake.

Exercises

  1. Why is relief usually not granted for unilateral mistakes? When is relief granted for them?
  2. If there is a mutual mistake, what does the party seeking relief have to show to avoid the contract?

10.4 Capacity

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand that infants may avoid their contracts, with limitations.
  2. Understand that insane or intoxicated people may avoid their contracts, with limitations.
  3. Understand the extent to which contracts made by mentally ill persons are voidable, void, or effectively enforceable.
  4. Recognize that contracts made by intoxicated persons may be voidable.

A contract is a meeting of minds. If someone lacks mental capacity to understand what he is assenting to—or that he is assenting to anything—it is unreasonable to hold him to the consequences of his act. At common law there are various classes of people who are presumed to lack the requisite capacity. These include infants (minors), the mentally ill, and the intoxicated.

Minors (or “Infants”)

The General Rule

The general rule is this: minorsBasically synonymous with infant: a young person who may avoid contracts on that account. (or more legalistically “infantsA person who has not reached the age of majority and who may (usually) avoid contracts on that account.”) are in most states persons younger than seventeen years old; they can avoid their contracts, up to and within a reasonable time after reaching majority, subject to some exceptions and limitations. The rationale here is that infants do not stand on an equal footing with adults, and it is unfair to require them to abide by contracts made when they have immature judgment.

The words minor and infant are mostly synonymous, but not exactly, necessarily. In a state where the legal age to drink alcohol is twenty-one, a twenty-year-old would be a minor, but not an infant, because infancy is under eighteen. A seventeen-year-old may avoid contracts (usually), but an eighteen-year-old, while legally bound to his contracts, cannot legally drink alcohol. Strictly speaking, the better term for one who may avoid his contracts is infant, even though, of course, in normal speaking we think of an infant as a baby.

The age of majorityWhen a person is old enough to make his or her contracts unavoidable on account of age. (when a person is no longer an infant or a minor) was lowered in all states except Mississippi during the 1970s (to correspond to the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971, guaranteeing the right to vote at eighteen) from twenty-one to either eighteen or nineteen. Legal rights for those under twenty-one remain ambiguous, however. Although eighteen-year-olds may assent to binding contracts, not all creditors and landlords believe it, and they may require parents to cosign. For those under twenty-one, there are also legal impediments to holding certain kinds of jobs, signing certain kinds of contracts, marrying, leaving home, and drinking alcohol. There is as yet no uniform set of rules.

The exact day on which the disability of minority vanishes also varies. The old common-law rule put it on the day before the twenty-first birthday. Many states have changed this rule so that majority commences on the day of the eighteenth birthday.

An infant’s contract is voidable, not void. An infant wishing to avoid the contract need do nothing positive to disaffirm. The defense of infancy to a lawsuit is sufficient; although the adult cannot enforce the contract, the infant can (which is why it is said to be voidable, not void).

Exceptions and Complications

There are exceptions and complications here. We call out six of them.

Necessities

First, as an exception to the general rule, infants are generally liable for the reasonable cost of necessities (for the reason that denying them the right to contract for necessities would harm them, not protect them). At common law, a necessity was defined as food, medicine, clothing, or shelter. In recent years, however, the courts have expanded the concept, so that in many states today, necessities include property and services that will enable the infant to earn a living and to provide for those dependent on him. If the contract is executory, the infant can simply disaffirm. If the contract has been executed, however, the infant must face more onerous consequences. Although he will not be required to perform under the contract, he will be liable under a theory of “quasi-contract” for the reasonable value of the necessity. In Gastonia Personnel Corp. v. Rogers, an emancipated infant, nineteen years old (before the age of minority was reduced), needed employment; he contracted with a personnel company to find him a job, for which it would charge him a fee.Gastonia Personnel Corp. v. Rogers, 172 S.E.2d 19 (N.C. 1970). The company did find him a job, and when he attempted to disaffirm his liability for payment on the grounds of infancy, the North Carolina court ruled against him, holding that the concepts of necessities “should be enlarged to include such…services as are reasonable and necessary to enable the infant to earn the money required to provide the necessities of life for himself” and his dependents.

Nonvoidable Contracts

Second, state statutes variously prohibit disaffirmation for such contracts as insurance, education or medical care, bonding agreements, stocks, or bank accounts. In addition, an infant will lose her power to avoid the contract if the rights of third parties intervene. Roberta, an infant, sells a car to Oswald; Oswald, in turn, shortly thereafter sells it to Byers, who knows nothing of Roberta. May Roberta—still an infant—recover it from Byers? No: the rights of the third party have intervened. To allow the infant seller recovery in this situation would undermine faith in commercial transactions.

Misrepresentation of Age

A third exception involves misrepresentation of age. Certainly, that the adult reasonably believed the infant was an adult is of no consequence in a contract suit. In many states, an infant may misrepresent his age and disaffirm in accordance with the general rule. But it depends. If an infant affirmatively lies about his age, the trend is to deny disaffirmation. A Michigan statute, for instance, prohibits an infant from disaffirming if he has signed a “separate instrument containing only the statement of age, date of signing and the signature.” And some states estop him from claiming to be an infant even if he less expressly falsely represented himself as an adult. Estoppel is a refusal by the courts on equitable grounds to allow a person to escape liability on an otherwise valid defense; unless the infant can return the consideration, the contract will be enforced. It is a question of fact how far a nonexpress (an implied) misrepresentation will be allowed to go before it is considered so clearly misleading as to range into the prohibited area. Some states hold the infant liable for damages for the tort of misrepresentation, but others do not. As William Prosser, the noted torts scholar, said of cases paying no attention to an infant’s lying about his age, “The effect of the decisions refusing to recognize tort liability for misrepresentation is to create a privileged class of liars who are a great trouble to the business world.”William L. Prosser, Handbook of the Law of Torts, 4th ed. (St. Paul, MN: West, 1971), 999.

Ratification

Fourth, when the infant becomes an adult, she has two choices: she may ratify the contract or disaffirm it. She may ratify explicitly; no further consideration is necessary. She may also do so by implication—for instance, by continuing to make payments or retaining goods for an unreasonable period of time. If the child has not disaffirmed the contract while still an infant, she may do so within a reasonable time after reaching majority; what is a “reasonable time” depends on the circumstances.

Duty to Return Consideration Received

Fifth, in most cases of disavowal, the infant’s only obligation is to return the goods (if he still has them) or repay the consideration (unless it has been dissipated); he does not have to account for what he wasted, consumed, or damaged during the contract. But since the age of majority has been lowered to eighteen or nineteen, when most young people have graduated from high school, some courts require, if appropriate to avoid injustice to the adult, that the infant account for what he got. (In Dodson v. Shrader, the supreme court of Tennessee held that an infant would–if the contract was fair–have to pay for the pickup truck he bought and wrecked.)Dodson v. Shrader, 824 S.W.2d 545 (Tenn. 1992).

Tort Connected with a Contract

Sixth, the general rule is that infants are liable for their torts (e.g., assault, trespass, nuisance, negligence) unless the tort suit is only an indirect method of enforcing a contract. Henry, age seventeen, holds himself out to be a competent mechanic. He is paid $500 to overhaul Baker’s engine, but he does a careless job and the engine is seriously damaged. He offers to return the $500 but disaffirms any further contractual liability. Can Baker sue him for his negligence, a tort? No, because such a suit would be to enforce the contract.

Persons Who Are Mentally Ill or Intoxicated

Mentally Ill Persons

The general rule is that a contract made by person who is mentally ill is voidable by the person when she regains her sanity, or, as appropriate, by a guardian. If, though, a guardian has been legally appointed for a person who is mentally ill, any contract made by the mentally ill person is void, but may nevertheless be ratified by the ward (the incompetent person who is under a guardianship) upon regaining sanity or by the guardian.Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 13.

However, if the contract was for a necessity, the other party may have a valid claim against the estate of the one who is mentally ill in order to prevent unjust enrichment. In other cases, whether a court will enforce a contract made with a person who is mentally ill depends on the circumstances. Only if the mental illness impairs the competence of the person in the particular transaction can the contract be avoided; the test is whether the person understood the nature of the business at hand. Upon avoidance, the mentally ill person must return any property in her possession. And if the contract was fair and the other party had no knowledge of the mental illness, the court has the power to order other relief.

Intoxicated Persons

If a person is so drunk that he has no awareness of his acts, and if the other person knows this, there is no contract. The intoxicated person is obligated to refund the consideration to the other party unless he dissipated it during his drunkenness. If the other person is unaware of his intoxicated state, however, an offer or acceptance of fair terms manifesting assent is binding.

If a person is only partially inebriated and has some understanding of his actions, “avoidance depends on a showing that the other party induced the drunkenness or that the consideration was inadequate or that the transaction departed from the normal pattern of similar transactions; if the particular transaction is one which a reasonably competent person might have made, it cannot be avoided even though entirely executory.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 16(b). A person who was intoxicated at the time he made the contract may nevertheless subsequently ratify it. Thus where Mervin Hyland, several times involuntarily committed for alcoholism, executed a promissory note in an alcoholic stupor but later, while sober, paid the interest on the past-due note, he was denied the defense of intoxication; the court said he had ratified his contract.First State Bank of Sinai v. Hyland, 399 N.W.2d 894 (S.D. 1987). In any event, intoxicated is a disfavored defense on public policy grounds.

Key Takeaway

Infants may generally disaffirm their contracts up to majority and within a reasonable time afterward, but the rule is subject to some exceptions and complications: necessities, contracts made nonvoidable by statute, misrepresentation of age, extent of duty to return consideration, ratification, and a tort connected with the contract are among these exceptions.

Contracts made by insane or intoxicated people are voidable when the person regains competency. A contract made by a person under guardianship is void, but the estate will be liable for necessities. A contract made while insane or intoxicated may be ratified.

Exercises

  1. Ivar, an infant, bought a used car—not a necessity—for $9,500. Seller took advantage of Ivar’s infancy: the car was really worth only $5,500. Can Ivar keep the car but disclaim liability for the $4,000 difference?
  2. If Ivar bought the car and it was a necessity, could he disclaim liability for the $4,000?
  3. Alice Ace found her adult son’s Christmas stocking; Mrs. Ace herself had made it fifty years before. It was considerably deteriorated. Isabel, sixteen, handy with knitting, agreed to reknit it for $100, which Mrs. Ace paid in advance. Isabel, regrettably, lost the stocking. She returned the $100 to Mrs. Ace, who was very upset. May Mrs. Ace now sue Isabel for the loss of the stocking (conversion) and emotional distress?
  4. Why is voluntary intoxication a disfavored defense?

10.5 Cases

Undue Influence

Hodge v. Shea

168 S.E.2d 82 (S.C. 1969)

Brailsford, J.

In this equitable action the circuit court decreed specific performance of a contract for the sale of land, and the defendant has appealed. The plaintiff is a physician, and the contract was prepared and executed in his medical office on August 19, 1965. The defendant had been plaintiff’s patient for a number of years. On the contract date, he was seventy-five years of age, was an inebriate of long standing, and was afflicted by grievous chronic illnesses, including arteriosclerosis, cirrhosis of the liver, neuritises, arthritis of the spine and hip and varicose veins of the legs. These afflictions and others required constant medication and frequent medical attention, and rendered him infirm of body and mind, although not to the point of incompetency to contract.

During the period immediately before and after August 19, 1965, George A. Shea, the defendant, was suffering a great deal of pain in his back and hip and was having difficulty in voiding. He was attended professionally by the plaintiff, Dr. Joseph Hodge, either at the Shea home, at the doctor’s office or in the hospital at least once each day from August 9 through August 26, 1965, except for August 17. The contract was signed during the morning of August 19. One of Dr. Hodge’s frequent house calls was made on the afternoon of that day, and Mr. Shea was admitted to the hospital on August 21, where he remained until August 25.

Mr. Shea was separated from his wife and lived alone. He was dependent upon Dr. Hodge for house calls, which were needed from time to time. His relationship with his physician, who sometimes visited him as a friend and occasionally performed non-professional services for him, was closer than ordinarily arises from that of patient and physician.…

“Where a physician regularly treats a chronically ill person over a period of two years, a confidential relationship is established, raising a presumption that financial dealings between them are fraudulent.” [Citation]

A 125 acre tract of land near Mr. Shea’s home, adjacent to land which was being developed as residential property, was one of his most valuable and readily salable assets. In 1962, the developer of this contiguous land had expressed to Mr. Shea an interest in it at $1000.00 per acre. A firm offer of this amount was made in November, 1964, and was refused by Mr. Shea on the advice of his son-in-law that the property was worth at least $1500.00 per acre. Negotiations between the developer and Mr. Ransdell commenced at that time and were in progress when Mr. Shea, at the instance of Dr. Hodge and without consulting Mr. Ransdell or anyone else, signed the contract of August 19, 1965. Under this contract Dr. Hodge claims the right to purchase twenty choice acres of the 125 acre tract for a consideration calculated by the circuit court to be the equivalent of $361.72 per acre. The market value of the land on the contract date has been fixed by an unappealed finding of the master at $1200.00 per acre.…

The consideration was expressed in the contract between Dr. Hodge and Mr. Shea as follows:

The purchase price being (Cadillac Coupe DeVille 6600) & $4000.00 Dollars, on the following terms: Dr. Joseph Hodge to give to Mr. George Shea a new $6600 coupe DeVille Cadillac which is to be registered in name of Mr. George A. Shea at absolutely no cost to him. In return, Mr. Shea will give to Dr. Joe Hodge his 1964 Cadillac coupe DeVille and shall transfer title of this vehicle to Dr. Hodge. Further, Dr. Joseph Hodge will pay to Mr. George A. Shea the balance of $4000.00 for the 20 acres of land described above subject to survey, title check, less taxes on purchase of vehicle.

Dr. Hodge was fully aware of Mr. Shea’s financial troubles, the liens on his property and his son-in-law’s efforts in his behalf. He was also aware of his patient’s predilection for new Cadillacs. Although he was not obligated to do so until the property was cleared of liens, which was not accomplished until the following June, Dr. Hodge hastened to purchase a 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and delivered it to Mr. Shea on the day after his discharge from the hospital on August 25, 1965. If he acted in haste in an effort to fortify what he must have realized was a dubious contract, he has so far succeeded.…

The case at hand is attended by gross inadequacy of consideration, serious impairment of the grantor’s mentality from age, intemperance and disease, and a confidential relationship between the grantee and grantor. Has the strong presumption of vitiating unfairness arising from this combination of circumstances been overcome by the evidence? We must conclude that it has not. The record is devoid of any evidence suggesting a reason, compatible with fairness, for Mr. Shea’s assent to so disadvantageous a bargain. Disadvantageous not only because of the gross disparity between consideration and value, but because of the possibility that the sale would impede the important negotiations in which Mr. Ransdell was engaged. Unless his memory failed him, Mr. Shea knew that his son-in-law expected to sell the 125 acre tract for about $1500.00 per acre as an important step toward raising sufficient funds to satisfy the tax and judgment liens against the Shea property. These circumstances furnish strong evidence that Mr. Shea’s assent to the contract, without so much as notice to Mr. Ransdell, was not the product of a deliberate Exercise of an informed judgment.…

Finally, on this phase of the case, it would be naive not to recognize that the 1965 Cadillac was used to entice a highly susceptible old man into a hard trade. Mr. Shea was fatuously fond of new Cadillacs, but was apparently incapable of taking care of one. His own 1964 model (he had also had a 1963 model) had been badly abused. According to Dr. Hodge, it ‘smelled like a toilet. * * * had several fenders bumped, bullet holes in the top and the car was just filthy * * *. It was a rather foul car.’…Knowing the condition of Mr. Shea’s car, his financial predicament and the activities of his son-in-law in his behalf, Dr. Hodge used the new automobile as a means of influencing Mr. Shea to agree to sell. The means was calculated to becloud Mr. Shea’s judgment, and, under the circumstances, its use was unfair.…

Reversed and remanded.

Case Questions

  1. Why is it relevant that Mr. Shea was separated from his wife and lived alone?
  2. Why is it relevant that it was his doctor who convinced him to sell the real estate?
  3. Why did the doctor offer the old man a Cadillac as part of the deal?
  4. Generally speaking, if you agree to sell your real estate for less than its real value, that’s just a unilateral mistake and the courts will grant no relief. What’s different here?

Misrepresentation by Concealment

Reed v. King

193 Cal. Rptr. 130 (Calif. Ct. App. 1983)

Blease, J.

In the sale of a house, must the seller disclose it was the site of a multiple murder? Dorris Reed purchased a house from Robert King. Neither King nor his real estate agents (the other named defendants) told Reed that a woman and her four children were murdered there ten years earlier. However, it seems “truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long.” (Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene II.) Reed learned of the gruesome episode from a neighbor after the sale. She sues seeking rescission and damages. King and the real estate agent defendants successfully demurred to her first amended complaint for failure to state a cause of action. Reed appeals the ensuing judgment of dismissal. We will reverse the judgment.

Facts

We take all issuable facts pled in Reed’s complaint as true. King and his real estate agent knew about the murders and knew the event materially affected the market value of the house when they listed it for sale. They represented to Reed the premises were in good condition and fit for an “elderly lady” living alone. They did not disclose the fact of the murders. At some point King asked a neighbor not to inform Reed of that event. Nonetheless, after Reed moved in neighbors informed her no one was interested in purchasing the house because of the stigma. Reed paid $76,000, but the house is only worth $65,000 because of its past.…

Discussion

Does Reed’s pleading state a cause of action? Concealed within this question is the nettlesome problem of the duty of disclosure of blemishes on real property which are not physical defects or legal impairments to use.

Numerous cases have found non-disclosure of physical defects and legal impediments to use of real property are material. [Citation] However, to our knowledge, no prior real estate sale case has faced an issue of non-disclosure of the kind presented here. Should this variety of ill-repute be required to be disclosed? Is this a circumstance where “non-disclosure of the fact amounts to a failure to act in good faith and in accordance with reasonable standards of fair dealing [?]” (Rest.2d Contracts, § 161, subd. (b).)

The paramount argument against an affirmative conclusion is it permits the camel’s nose of unrestrained irrationality admission to the tent. If such an “irrational” consideration is permitted as a basis of rescission the stability of all conveyances will be seriously undermined. Any fact that might disquiet the enjoyment of some segment of the buying public may be seized upon by a disgruntled purchaser to void a bargain. In our view, keeping this genie in the bottle is not as difficult a task as these arguments assume. We do not view a decision allowing Reed to survive a demurrer in these unusual circumstances as endorsing the materiality of facts predicating peripheral, insubstantial, or fancied harms.

The murder of innocents is highly unusual in its potential for so disturbing buyers they may be unable to reside in a home where it has occurred. This fact may foreseeably deprive a buyer of the intended use of the purchase. Murder is not such a common occurrence that buyers should be charged with anticipating and discovering this disquieting possibility. Accordingly, the fact is not one for which a duty of inquiry and discovery can sensibly be imposed upon the buyer.

Reed alleges the fact of the murders has a quantifiable effect on the market value of the premises. We cannot say this allegation is inherently wrong and, in the pleading posture of the case, we assume it to be true. If information known or accessible only to the seller has a significant and measureable effect on market value and, as is alleged here, the seller is aware of this effect, we see no principled basis for making the duty to disclose turn upon the character of the information. Physical usefulness is not and never has been the sole criterion of valuation. Stamp collections and gold speculation would be insane activities if utilitarian considerations were the sole measure of value.

Reputation and history can have a significant effect on the value of realty. “George Washington slept here” is worth something, however physically inconsequential that consideration may be. Ill-repute or “bad will” conversely may depress the value of property. Failure to disclose such a negative fact where it will have a forseeably depressing effect on income expected to be generated by a business is tortuous. [Citation] Some cases have held that unreasonable fears of the potential buying public that a gas or oil pipeline may rupture may depress the market value of land and entitle the owner to incremental compensation in eminent domain.

Whether Reed will be able to prove her allegation the decade-old multiple murder has a significant effect on market value we cannot determine. If she is able to do so by competent evidence she is entitled to a favorable ruling on the issues of materiality and duty to disclose. Her demonstration of objective tangible harm would still the concern that permitting her to go forward will open the floodgates to rescission on subjective and idiosyncratic grounds.…

The judgment is reversed.

Case Questions

  1. Why is it relevant that the plaintiff was “an elderly lady living alone”?
  2. How did Mrs. Reed find out about the gruesome fact here?
  3. Why did the defendants conceal the facts?
  4. What is the concern about opening “floodgates to rescission on subjective and idiosyncratic grounds”?
  5. Why did George Washington sleep in so many places during the Revolutionary War?
  6. Did Mrs. Reed get to rescind her contract and get out of the house as a result of this case?

Misrepresentation by Assertions of Opinion

Vokes v. Arthur Murray, Inc.

212 S.2d. 906 (Fla. 1968)

Pierce, J.

This is an appeal by Audrey E. Vokes, plaintiff below, from a final order dismissing with prejudice, for failure to state a cause of action, her fourth amended complaint, hereinafter referred to as plaintiff’s complaint.

Defendant Arthur Murray, Inc., a corporation, authorizes the operation throughout the nation of dancing schools under the name of “Arthur Murray School of Dancing” through local franchised operators, one of whom was defendant J. P. Davenport whose dancing establishment was in Clearwater.

Plaintiff Mrs. Audrey E. Vokes, a widow of 51 years and without family, had a yen to be “an accomplished dancer” with the hopes of finding “new interest in life.” So, on February 10, 1961, a dubious fate, with the assist of a motivated acquaintance, procured her to attend a “dance party” at Davenport’s “School of Dancing” where she whiled away the pleasant hours, sometimes in a private room, absorbing his accomplished sales technique, during which her grace and poise were elaborated upon and her rosy future as “an excellent dancer” was painted for her in vivid and glowing colors. As an incident to this interlude, he sold her eight 1/2-hour dance lessons to be utilized within one calendar month therefrom, for the sum of $14.50 cash in hand paid, obviously a baited “come-on.”

Thus she embarked upon an almost endless pursuit of the terpsichorean art during which, over a period of less than sixteen months, she was sold fourteen “dance courses” totaling in the aggregate 2302 hours of dancing lessons for a total cash outlay of $31,090.45 [about $220,000 in 2010 dollars] all at Davenport’s dance emporium. All of these fourteen courses were evidenced by execution of a written “Enrollment Agreement-Arthur Murray’s School of Dancing” with the addendum in heavy black print, “No one will be informed that you are taking dancing lessons. Your relations with us are held in strict confidence”, setting forth the number of “dancing lessons” and the “lessons in rhythm sessions” currently sold to her from time to time, and always of course accompanied by payment of cash of the realm.

These dance lesson contracts and the monetary consideration therefore of over $31,000 were procured from her by means and methods of Davenport and his associates which went beyond the unsavory, yet legally permissible, perimeter of “sales puffing” and intruded well into the forbidden area of undue influence, the suggestion of falsehood, the suppression of truth, and the free Exercise of rational judgment, if what plaintiff alleged in her complaint was true. From the time of her first contact with the dancing school in February, 1961, she was influenced unwittingly by a constant and continuous barrage of flattery, false praise, excessive compliments, and panegyric encomiums, to such extent that it would be not only inequitable, but unconscionable, for a Court exercising inherent chancery power to allow such contracts to stand.

She was incessantly subjected to overreaching blandishment and cajolery. She was assured she had “grace and poise”; that she was “rapidly improving and developing in her dancing skill”; that the additional lessons would “make her a beautiful dancer, capable of dancing with the most accomplished dancers”; that she was “rapidly progressing in the development of her dancing skill and gracefulness”, etc., etc. She was given “dance aptitude tests” for the ostensible purpose of “determining” the number of remaining hours of instructions needed by her from time to time.

At one point she was sold 545 additional hours of dancing lessons to be entitled to an award of the “Bronze Medal” signifying that she had reached “the Bronze Standard”, a supposed designation of dance achievement by students of Arthur Murray, Inc.…At another point, while she still had over 1,000 unused hours of instruction she was induced to buy 151 additional hours at a cost of $2,049.00 to be eligible for a “Student Trip to Trinidad”, at her own expense as she later learned.…

Finally, sandwiched in between other lesser sales promotions, she was influenced to buy an additional 481 hours of instruction at a cost of $6,523.81 in order to “be classified as a Gold Bar Member, the ultimate achievement of the dancing studio.”

All the foregoing sales promotions, illustrative of the entire fourteen separate contracts, were procured by defendant Davenport and Arthur Murray, Inc., by false representations to her that she was improving in her dancing ability, that she had excellent potential, that she was responding to instructions in dancing grace, and that they were developing her into a beautiful dancer, whereas in truth and in fact she did not develop in her dancing ability, she had no “dance aptitude,” and in fact had difficulty in “hearing that musical beat.” The complaint alleged that such representations to her “were in fact false and known by the defendant to be false and contrary to the plaintiff’s true ability, the truth of plaintiff’s ability being fully known to the defendants, but withheld from the plaintiff for the sole and specific intent to deceive and defraud the plaintiff and to induce her in the purchasing of additional hours of dance lessons.” It was averred that the lessons were sold to her “in total disregard to the true physical, rhythm, and mental ability of the plaintiff.” In other words, while she first exulted that she was entering the “spring of her life”, she finally was awakened to the fact there was “spring” neither in her life nor in her feet.

The complaint prayed that the Court decree the dance contracts to be null and void and to be cancelled, that an accounting be had, and judgment entered against, the defendants “for that portion of the $31,090.45 not charged against specific hours of instruction given to the plaintiff.” The Court held the complaint not to state a cause of action and dismissed it with prejudice. We disagree and reverse.

It is true that “generally a misrepresentation, to be actionable, must be one of fact rather than of opinion.” [Citations] But this rule has significant qualifications, applicable here. It does not apply where there is a fiduciary relationship between the parties, or where there has been some artifice or trick employed by the representor, or where the parties do not in general deal at “arm’s length” as we understand the phrase, or where the representee does not have equal opportunity to become apprised of the truth or falsity of the fact represented. [Citation] As stated by Judge Allen of this Court in [Citation]:

“* * * A statement of a party having * * * superior knowledge may be regarded as a statement of fact although it would be considered as opinion if the parties were dealing on equal terms.”…

In [Citation] it was said that “* * * what is plainly injurious to good faith ought to be considered as a fraud sufficient to impeach a contract.”… [Reversed.]

Case Questions

  1. What was the motivation of the “motivated acquaintance” in this case?
  2. Why is it relevant that Mrs. Vokes was a “widow of 51 years and without family”?
  3. How did the defendant J. P. Davenport entice her into spending a lot of money on dance lessons?
  4. What was the defendants’ defense as to why they should not be liable for misrepresentation, and why was that defense not good?
  5. Would you say the court here is rather condescending to Mrs. Vokes, all things considered?

Mutual Mistake

Konic International Corporation v. Spokane Computer Services, Inc.,

708 P.2d 932 (Idaho 1985)

The magistrate found the following facts. David Young, an employee of Spokane Computer, was instructed by his employer to investigate the possibility of purchasing a surge protector, a device which protects computers from damaging surges of electrical current. Young’s investigation turned up several units priced from $50 to $200, none of which, however, were appropriate for his employer’s needs. Young then contacted Konic. After discussing Spokane Computer’s needs with a Konic engineer, Young was referred to one of Konic’s salesmen. Later, after deciding on a certain unit, Young inquired as to the price of the selected item. The salesman responded, “fifty-six twenty.” The salesman meant $5,620. Young in turn thought $56.20.

The salesman for Konic asked about Young’s authority to order the equipment and was told that Young would have to get approval from one of his superiors. Young in turn prepared a purchase order for $56.20 and had it approved by the appropriate authority. Young telephoned the order and purchase order number to Konic who then shipped the equipment to Spokane Computer. However, because of internal processing procedures of both parties the discrepancy in prices was not discovered immediately. Spokane Computer received the surge protector and installed it in its office. The receipt and installation of the equipment occurred while the president of Spokane Computer was on vacation. Although the president’s father, who was also chairman of the board of Spokane Computer, knew of the installation, he only inquired as to what the item was and who had ordered it. The president came back from vacation the day after the surge protector had been installed and placed in operation and was told of the purchase. He immediately ordered that power to the equipment be turned off because he realized that the equipment contained parts which alone were worth more than $56 in value. Although the president then told Young to verify the price of the surge protector, Young failed to do so. Two weeks later, when Spokane Computer was processing its purchase order and Konic’s invoice, the discrepancy between the amount on the invoice and the amount on the purchase order was discovered. The president of Spokane Computer then contacted Konic, told Konic that Young had no authority to order such equipment, that Spokane Computer did not want the equipment, and that Konic should remove it. Konic responded that Spokane Computer now owned the equipment and if the equipment was not paid for, Konic would sue for the price. Spokane Computer refused to pay and this litigation ensued.

Basically what is involved here is a failure of communication between the parties. A similar failure to communicate arose over 100 years ago in the celebrated case of Raffles v. Wichelhaus, [Citation] which has become better known as the case of the good ship “Peerless.” In Peerless, the parties agreed on a sale of cotton which was to be delivered from Bombay by the ship “Peerless.” In fact, there were two ships named “Peerless” and each party, in agreeing to the sale, was referring to a different ship. Because the sailing time of the two ships was materially different, neither party was willing to agree to shipment by the “other” Peerless. The court ruled that, because each party had a different ship in mind at the time of the contract, there was in fact no binding contract. The Peerless rule later was incorporated into section 71 of the Restatement of Contracts and has now evolved into section 20 of Restatement (Second) of Contracts (1981). Section 20 states in part:

(1) There is no manifestation of mutual assent to an exchange if the parties attach materially different meanings to their manifestations and

(a) neither knows or has reason to know the meaning attached by the other.

Comment (c) to Section 20 further explains that “even though the parties manifest mutual assent to the same words of agreement, there may be no contract because of a material difference of understanding as to the terms of the exchange.” Another authority, Williston, discussing situations where a mistake will prevent formation of a contract, agrees that “where a phrase of contract…is reasonably capable of different interpretations…there is no contract.” [Citation]

In the present case, both parties attributed different meanings to the same term, “fifty-six twenty.” Thus, there was no meeting of the minds of the parties. With a hundred fold difference in the two prices, obviously price was a material term. Because the “fifty-six twenty” designation was a material term expressed in an ambiguous form to which two meanings were obviously applied, we conclude that no contract between the parties was ever formed. Accordingly, we do not reach the issue of whether Young had authority to order the equipment.

[Affirmed.]

Case Questions

  1. Why is it reasonable to say that no contract was made in this case?
  2. A discrepancy in price of one hundred times is, of course, enormous. How could such an egregious mistake have occurred by both parties? In terms of running a sensible business, how could this kind of mistake be avoided before it resulted in expensive litigation?

10.6 Summary and Exercises

Summary

No agreement is enforceable if the parties did not enter into it (1) of their own free will, (2) with adequate knowledge of the terms, and (3) with the mental capacity to appreciate the relationship.

Contracts coerced through duress will void a contract if actually induced through physical harm and will make the contract voidable if entered under the compulsion of many types of threats. The threat must be improper and leave no reasonable alternative, but the test is subjective—that is, what did the person threatened actually fear, not what a more reasonable person might have feared.

Misrepresentations may render an agreement void or voidable. Among the factors to be considered are whether the misrepresentation was deliberate and material; whether the promisee relied on the misrepresentation in good faith; whether the representation was of fact, opinion, or intention; and whether the parties had a special relationship.

Similarly, mistaken beliefs, not induced by misrepresentations, may suffice to avoid the bargain. Some mistakes on one side only make a contract voidable. More often, mutual mistakes of facts will show that there was no meeting of the minds.

Those who lack capacity are often entitled to avoid contract liability. Although it is possible to state the general rule, many exceptions exist—for example, in contracts for necessities, infants will be liable for the reasonable value of the goods purchased.

Exercises

  1. Eulrich, an auto body mechanic who had never operated a business, entered into a Snap-On Tools franchise agreement. For $22,000 invested from his savings and the promise of another $22,000 from the sale of inventory, he was provided a truck full of tools. His job was to drive around his territory and sell them. The agreement allowed termination by either party; if Eulrich terminated, he was entitled to resell to Snap-On any new tools he had remaining. When he complained that his territory was not profitable, his supervisors told him to work it harder, that anybody could make money with Snap-On’s marketing system. (In fact, the evidence was the system made money for the supervisors and little for dealers; dealers quickly failed and were replaced by new recruits.) Within several months Eulrich was out of money and desperate. He tried to “check in” his truck to get money to pay his household bills and uninsured medical bills for his wife; the supervisors put him off for weeks. On the check-in day, the exhausted Eulrich’s supervisors berated him for being a bad businessman, told him no check would be forthcoming until all the returned inventory was sold, and presented him with a number of papers to sign, including a “Termination Agreement” whereby he agreed to waive any claims against Snap-On; he was not aware that was what he had signed. He sued to rescind the contract and for damages. The defendants held up the waiver as a defense. Under what theory might Eulrich recover?Eulrich v. Snap-On Tools Corp., 853 P.2d 1350 (Or. Ct. App. 1993).
  2. Chauncey, a college student, worked part-time in a restaurant. After he had worked for several months, the owner of the restaurant discovered that Chauncey had stolen $2,000 from the cash register. The owner called Chauncey’s parents and told them that if they did not sign a note for $2,000, he would initiate criminal proceedings against Chauncey. The parents signed and delivered the note to the owner but later refused to pay. May the owner collect on the note? Why?
  3. A restaurant advertised a steak dinner that included a “juicy, great-tasting steak, a fresh crisp salad, and a warm roll.” After reading the ad, Clarence visited the restaurant and ordered the steak dinner. The steak was dry, the lettuce in the salad was old and limp with brown edges, and the roll was partly frozen. May Clarence recover from the restaurant on the basis of misrepresentation? Why?
  4. Bert purchased Ernie’s car. Before selling the car, Ernie had stated to Bert, “This car runs well and is reliable. Last week I drove the car all the way from Seattle to San Francisco to visit my mother and back again to Seattle.” In fact, Ernie was not telling the truth: he had driven the car to San Francisco to visit his paramour, not his mother. Upon discovery of the truth, may Bert avoid the contract? Why?
  5. Randolph enrolled in a business law class and purchased a new business law textbook from the local bookstore. He dropped the class during the first week and sold the book to his friend Scott. Before making the sale, Randolph told Scott that he had purchased the book new and had owned it for one week. Unknown to either Randolph or Scott, the book was in fact a used one. Scott later discovered some underlining in the middle of the book and attempted to avoid the contract. Randolph refused to refund the purchase price, claiming that he had not intentionally deceived his friend. May Scott avoid the contract? Why?
  6. Langstraat was seventeen when he purchased a motorcycle. When applying for insurance, he signed a “Notice of Rejection,” declining to purchase uninsured motorist coverage. He was involved in an accident with an uninsured motorist and sought to disaffirm his rejection of the uninsured motorist coverage on the basis of infancy. May he do so?
  7. Waters was attracted to Midwest Supply by its advertisements for doing federal income taxes. The ads stated “guaranteed accurate tax preparation.” Waters inquired about amending past returns to obtain refunds. Midwest induced him to apply for and receive improper refunds. When Waters was audited, he was required to pay more taxes, and the IRS put tax liens on his wages and bank accounts. In fact, Midwest hired people with no knowledge about taxes at all; if a customer inquired about employees’ qualifications, Midwest’s manual told the employees to say, “Midwest has been preparing taxes for twenty years.” The manual also instructed office managers never to refer to any employee as a “specialist” or “tax expert,” but never to correct any news reporters or commentators if they referred to employees as such. What cause of action has Waters, and for what remedies?
  8. Mutschler Grain Company (later Jamestown Farmers Elevator) agreed to sell General Mills 30,000 bushels of barley at $1.22 per bushel. A dispute arose: Mutschler said that transportation was to be by truck but that General Mills never ordered any trucks to pick up the grain; General Mills said the grain was to be shipped by rail (railcars were in short supply). Nine months later, after Mutschler had delivered only about one-tenth the contracted amount, the price of barley was over $3.00 per bushel. Mutschler defaulted on, and then repudiated, the contract. Fred Mutschler then received this telephone call from General Mills: “We’re General Mills, and if you don’t deliver this grain to us, why we’ll have a battery of lawyers in there tomorrow morning to visit you, and then we are going to the North Dakota Public Service (Commission); we’re going to the Minneapolis Grain Exchange and we’re going to the people in Montana and there will be no more Mutschler Grain Company. We’re going to take your license.”

    Mutchsler then shipped 22,000 bushels of barley at the $1.22 rate and sued General Mills for the difference between that price and the market price of over $3.00. Summary judgment issued for General Mills. Upon what basis might Mutschler Grain appeal?

  9. Duke decided to sell his car. The car’s muffler had a large hole in it, and as a result, the car made a loud noise. Before showing the car to potential buyers, Duke patched the hole with muffler tape to quiet it. Perry bought the car after test-driving it. He later discovered the faulty muffler and sought to avoid the contract, claiming fraud. Duke argued that he had not committed fraud because Perry had not asked about the muffler and Duke had made no representation of fact concerning it. Is Duke correct? Decide and explain.
  10. At the end of the term at college, Jose, talking in the library with his friend Leanne, said, “I’ll sell you my business law notes for $25.” Leanne agreed and paid him the money. Jose then realized he’d made a mistake in that he had offered his notes when he meant to offer his book. Leanne didn’t want the book; she had a book. She wanted the notes. Would Leanne have a cause of action against Jose if he refused to deliver the notes? Decide and explain.

Self-Test Questions

  1. Misrepresentation that does not go to the core of a contract is

    1. fraud in the execution
    2. fraud in the inducement
    3. undue influence
    4. an example of mistake
  2. In order for a misrepresentation to make a contract voidable,

    1. it must have been intentional
    2. the party seeking to void must have relied on the misrepresentation
    3. it must always be material
    4. none of the above is required
  3. A mistake by one party will not invalidate a contract unless

    1. the other party knew of the mistake
    2. the party making the mistake did not read the contract closely
    3. the parties to the contract had never done business before
    4. the party is mistaken about the law
  4. Upon reaching the age of majority, a person who entered into a contract to purchase goods while a minor may

    1. ratify the contract and keep the goods without paying for them
    2. disaffirm the contract and keep the goods without paying for them
    3. avoid paying for the goods by keeping them without ratifying or disaffirming the contract
    4. none of these
  5. Seller does not disclose to Buyer that the foundation of a house is infested with termites. Upon purchasing the house and remodeling part of the basement, Buyer discovers the termites. Has Buyer a cause of action against Seller?

    1. yes
    2. no

Self-Test Answers

  1. a
  2. d
  3. a
  4. e
  5. b