Lucy v. Zehmer
84 S.E.2d 516 (Va. 1954)
This suit was instituted by W. O. Lucy and J. C. Lucy, complainants, against A. H. Zehmer and Ida S. Zehmer, his wife, defendants, to have specific performance of a contract by which it was alleged the Zehmers had sold to W. O. Lucy a tract of land owned by A. H. Zehmer in Dinwiddie county containing 471.6 acres, more or less, known as the Ferguson farm, for $50,000. J. C. Lucy, the other complainant, is a brother of W. O. Lucy, to whom W. O. Lucy transferred a half interest in his alleged purchase.
The instrument sought to be enforced was written by A. H. Zehmer on December 20, 1952, in these words: “We hereby agree to sell to W. O. Lucy the Ferguson farm complete for $50,000.00, title satisfactory to buyer,” and signed by the defendants, A. H. Zehmer and Ida S. Zehmer.
The answer of A. H. Zehmer admitted that at the time mentioned W. O. Lucy offered him $50,000 cash for the farm, but that he, Zehmer, considered that the offer was made in jest; that so thinking, and both he and Lucy having had several drinks, he wrote out “the memorandum” quoted above and induced his wife to sign it; that he did not deliver the memorandum to Lucy, but that Lucy picked it up, read it, put it in his pocket, attempted to offer Zehmer $5 to bind the bargain, which Zehmer refused to accept, and realizing for the first time that Lucy was serious, Zehmer assured him that he had no intention of selling the farm and that the whole matter was a joke. Lucy left the premises insisting that he had purchased the farm.…
In his testimony Zehmer claimed that he “was high as a Georgia pine,” and that the transaction “was just a bunch of two doggoned drunks bluffing to see who could talk the biggest and say the most.” That claim is inconsistent with his attempt to testify in great detail as to what was said and what was done.…
If it be assumed, contrary to what we think the evidence shows, that Zehmer was jesting about selling his farm to Lucy and that the transaction was intended by him to be a joke, nevertheless the evidence shows that Lucy did not so understand it but considered it to be a serious business transaction and the contract to be binding on the Zehmers as well as on himself. The very next day he arranged with his brother to put up half the money and take a half interest in the land. The day after that he employed an attorney to examine the title. The next night, Tuesday, he was back at Zehmer’s place and there Zehmer told him for the first time, Lucy said, that he wasn’t going to sell and he told Zehmer, “You know you sold that place fair and square.” After receiving the report from his attorney that the title was good he wrote to Zehmer that he was ready to close the deal.
Not only did Lucy actually believe, but the evidence shows he was warranted in believing, that the contract represented a serious business transaction and a good faith sale and purchase of the farm.
In the field of contracts, as generally elsewhere, “We must look to the outward expression of a person as manifesting his intention rather than to his secret and unexpressed intention. The law imputes to a person an intention corresponding to the reasonable meaning of his words and acts.”
At no time prior to the execution of the contract had Zehmer indicated to Lucy by word or act that he was not in earnest about selling the farm. They had argued about it and discussed its terms, as Zehmer admitted, for a long time. Lucy testified that if there was any jesting it was about paying $50,000 that night. The contract and the evidence show that he was not expected to pay the money that night. Zehmer said that after the writing was signed he laid it down on the counter in front of Lucy. Lucy said Zehmer handed it to him. In any event there had been what appeared to be a good faith offer and a good faith acceptance, followed by the execution and apparent delivery of a written contract. Both said that Lucy put the writing in his pocket and then offered Zehmer $5 to seal the bargain. Not until then, even under the defendants’ evidence, was anything said or done to indicate that the matter was a joke. Both of the Zehmers testified that when Zehmer asked his wife to sign he whispered that it was a joke so Lucy wouldn’t hear and that it was not intended that he should hear.
The mental assent of the parties is not requisite for the formation of a contract. If the words or other acts of one of the parties have but one reasonable meaning, his undisclosed intention is immaterial except when an unreasonable meaning which he attaches to his manifestations is known to the other party.
“* * * The law, therefore, judges of an agreement between two persons exclusively from those expressions of their intentions which are communicated between them. * * *.” [Citation]
An agreement or mutual assent is of course essential to a valid contract but the law imputes to a person an intention corresponding to the reasonable meaning of his words and acts. If his words and acts, judged by a reasonable standard, manifest an intention to agree, it is immaterial what may be the real but unexpressed state of his mind.
So a person cannot set up that he was merely jesting when his conduct and words would warrant a reasonable person in believing that he intended a real agreement.
Whether the writing signed by the defendants and now sought to be enforced by the complainants was the result of a serious offer by Lucy and a serious acceptance by the defendants, or was a serious offer by Lucy and an acceptance in secret jest by the defendants, in either event it constituted a binding contract of sale between the parties.…
Reversed and remanded.
- What objective evidence was there to support the defendants’ contention that they were just kidding when they agreed to sell the farm?
- Suppose the defendants really did think the whole thing was a kind of joke. Would that make any difference?
- As a matter of public policy, why does the law use an objective standard to determine the seriousness of intention, instead of a subjective standard?
- It’s 85 degrees in July and 5:00 p.m., quitting time. The battery in Mary’s car is out of juice, again. Mary says, “Arrgh! I will sell this stupid car for $50!” Jason, walking to his car nearby, whips out his checkbook and says, “It’s a deal. Leave your car here. I’ll give you a ride home and pick up your car after you give me the title.” Do the parties have a contract?