Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. (1893)

English Contract Law

Carlill

The primary ingredients to a valid and enforceable contract are (i) offer (ii) acceptance (iii) consideration and (iv) performance; and so on this occasion, the sale of medicinal apparatus proved the undoing of what may have at first blush appeared to be a lucrative use of marketing and false pretence.

In 1891 an advertisement was placed in the Pall Mall Gazette boasting the remedial powers of carbolic smoke balls, that when used in accordance with the manufacturers instructions could prevent users from the effects of influenza, while the exact words used stated that:

“100l reward will be paid by the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company to any person who contracts the increasing epidemic influenza, colds, or any disease caused by taking cold, after having used the ball three times daily for two weeks according to the printed directions supplied with each ball. 1000l is deposited with the Alliance Bank, Regent Street shewing our sincerity in the matter.”

Having decided to take the challenge, the respondent in this appeal purchased and used the product in full observation of the terms of the advert and yet still caught the virus, whereupon she sued for breach of contract.

Following a general examination of  the nature of her claim, the court awarded in favour of the respondent, before the appellants sought to challenge the existence of a contract on grounds that (i) the advert did not constitute a contract, (ii) that non-specificity of persons prevented any binding effect on consumers, (iii) that no acceptance had been notified so as to bind them, and (iv) that no consideration had been made by the respondent so as to warrant a claim of right.

After addressing each point sequentially the Court of Appeal unanimously held that while the advert did not amount to a contract, it did represent an offer to the world entire, therefore those who chose to purchase and use the product as prescribed within the published text were through their participation, demonstrating full and unconditional acceptance of the offer.

Similarly the money spent and time invested when using the smoke balls (an unpleasant experience in itself) further indicated that consideration had been sufficient enough to allow a claim.

In addition the Court upheld the appeal on grounds while noting how unlike arms-length contracts, the all-encompassing design of advertisements were not such that required acceptance for reasons of practicality and that reasonable application of the promises made prevented revocation by the advertisers on grounds that when drafting the advert, they did so upon the risk that profit may, or may not, have become certain, while reminding the parties that:

“Inconvenience sustained by one party at the request of the other is enough to create a consideration.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, legal scholar and foodie...

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