CONTRACTS AND CONSUMER PROTECTION
A consumer contract is a legally binding agreement between you and the consumer concerning the sale of goods or the supply of services.
Elements of a Contract
An offer is a promise to act or refrain from acting, which is made in exchange for a return promise to do the same. Some offers anticipate not another promise being returned in exchange but the performance of an act or forbearance from taking action. For example, a painter’s offer to paint someone’s house for $100 is probably conditioned on the homeowner’s promise to pay upon completion, while a homeowner’s offer to pay someone $100 to have his or her house painted is probably conditioned upon the painter’s successfully performing the job. In either case, an offeree’s power of acceptance is created when the offeror conveys a present intent to enter a contract in certain and definite terms that are communicated to the offeree.
Courts distinguish preliminary negotiations from formal legal offers in that parties to preliminary negotiations lack a present intent to form a contract. Accordingly, no contract is formed when parties to preliminary negotiations respond to each other’s invitations, requests, and intimations. Advertisements and catalogues, for example, are treated as forms of preliminary negotiations. Otherwise, the seller of the goods or services would be liable for countless contracts with consumers who view the ad or read the catalogue, even though the quantity of the merchandise may be limited.
However, sellers must be careful to avoid couching their advertisements in clear and definite terms that create the power of acceptance in consumers. For example, sellers have been found liable to consumers for advertising a definite quantity of goods for sale at a certain price on a “first come, first serve” basis, after consumers showed up and offered to pay the advertised price before the goods sold out. In such situations, the seller may not withdraw the offer on grounds that market factors no longer justify selling the goods at the advertised price. Instead, courts will compel them to sell the goods as advertised.
The rejection of an offer terminates the offeree’s power of acceptance and ends the offeror’s liability for the offer. Rejection might come in the form of an express refusal to accept the offer or by implication when the offeree makes a counteroffer that is materially different from the offeror’s original proposal. Most jurisdictions also recognize an offeror’s right to withdraw or revoke an offer as a legitimate means of terminating the offer.
Offers that are not rejected, withdrawn, or revoked generally continue until the expiration of the time period specified by the offer, or, if there is no time limit specified, until a reasonable time has elapsed. A reasonable time is determined according to what a reasonable person would consider sufficient time to accept the offer under the circumstances. Regardless of how much time has elapsed following an offer, the death or insanity of either party before acceptance is communicated normally terminates an offer, as does the destruction of the subject matter of the proposed contract and any intervening conditions that would make acceptance illegal.
Sometimes offerees are concerned that an offer may be terminated before they have had a full opportunity to evaluate it. In this case, they may purchase an “option” to keep the offer open for a designated time. During that time the offer is deemed irrevocable, though some jurisdictions allow the offeror to revoke the offer by paying the offeree an agreed upon sum to do so.
Acceptance of an offer is the expression of assent to its terms. Acceptance must generally be made in the manner specified by the offer. If no manner of acceptance is specified by the offer, then acceptance may be made in a manner that is reasonable under the circumstances. An acceptance is only valid, however, if the offeree knows of the offer, the offeree manifests an intention to accept, and the acceptance is expressed as an unequivocal and unconditional agreement to the terms of the offer.
Many offers specify the method of acceptance, whether it be oral or written, by phone or in person, by handshake or by ceremony. Other offers leave open the method of acceptance, allowing the offeree to accept in a reasonable manner. Most consumer transactions fall into this category, as when a shopper “accepts” a merchant’s offer by taking possession of a particular good and paying for it at the cash register. But what constitutes a “reasonable” acceptance will vary according to the contract.
Some offers may only be accepted by the performance or non-performance of a particular act. Once formed, these types of agreements are called unilateral contracts, and they are discussed more fully later in this essay. Other offers may only be accepted by a return promise of performance from the offeree. Once formed, these agreements are called bilateral contracts, and they are also discussed more fully later in this essay.
Problems can arise when it is not clear whether an offer anticipates the method of acceptance to come in the form of performance or a return promise. Section 32 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts attempts to address this issue by providing that “in case of doubt an offer is interpreted as inviting the offeree to accept either by promising to perform what the offer requests or by rendering performance, as the offeree chooses.” A growing number of jurisdictions are adopting this approach.
Jurisdictions are split as to the time when an air-mailed acceptance becomes effective. Under the majority approach, known as “the mailbox rule,” an acceptance is effective upon dispatch in a properly addressed envelope with prepaid postage, even if the acceptance is lost or destroyed in transit. Under the minority approach, acceptance is effective only upon actual receipt by the offeror, no matter what precautions the offeree took to ensure that the acceptance was properly mailed.
In certain cases acceptance can be implied from a party’s conduct. Suppose a consumer orders a personal computer (PC) with exact specifications for its central processing unit (CPU), hard drive, and memory. Upon receipt, the consumer determines that the PC does not match the specs. If the consumer nonetheless pays the full amount on the invoice accompanying the PC without protest, the consumer has effectively communicated a legally binding acceptance of the non-conforming good.
Acceptance cannot generally be inferred from a party’s silence or inaction. An exception to this rule occurs when two parties have a prior course of dealings in which the offeree has led the offeror to believe that the offeree will accept all goods shipped by the offeror unless the offeree sends notice to the contrary. In such instances, the offeree’s silence or inaction constitutes a legally binding acceptance upon which the offer or can rely.
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