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Mutual Mistake

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

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. ThePeerlessrule 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.



  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?