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Party Seeking Relief Does Not Bear the Risk of the Mistake

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

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.


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.


  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?