A contract is an agreement between two parties that creates an obligation to do or refrain from doing a particular thing. The purpose of a contract is to establish the terms of the agreement by which the parties have fixed their rights and duties. Courts must enforce valid contracts, unless one party has legal grounds to bar enforcement.
Consumers and commercial entities both depend on the enforceability of contracts when conducting business relations. When consumers or commercial entities enter a contract to buy goods or services at a particular price, in a particular amount, or of a particular quality, they expect the seller to deliver goods and services that conform to the contract. Manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers similarly expect that their goods and services will be bought in accordance with the terms of the contract.
A legal action for breach of contract arises when at least one party's performance does not live up to the terms of the contract and causes the other party to suffer economic damage or other types of measurable injury. The injury may include any loss suffered by the plaintiff in having to buy replacement goods or services at a higher price or of a lower quality from someone else in the market. It may also include the costs and expenses incurred by the plaintiff in having to locate replacement goods or services in the first place.
Contract disputes may be governed by the common law, statutory law, or both. Each state has developed its own common law of contracts, which consists of a body of jurisprudence developed over time by trial and appellate courts on a case-by-case basis. Many states have been influenced by the Restatement (Second) of Contracts, which was approved by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1979.
For contracts involving commercial transactions, all fifty states have enacted, at least partially, a body
of statutory law called the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which governs a variety of commercial relations involving consumers and merchants, among others. Article 2 of the U.C.C. governs the sale of goods, which are defined by the code as items that are "movable" at the time of the contract. The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform States Laws, along with the ALI and the American Bar Association, approved a revised version of Article 2 in 2003. However, as of February 2006, no state had adopted the revised version.
State legislatures have also enacted a host of other statutes governing contracts that affect the public interest. For example, most states have passed legislation governing the terms of insurance contracts to guarantee that sufficient financial resources will be available for residents who are injured by accident. Congress has passed a number of laws governing contracts as well, ranging from laws that regulate the terms of collective bargaining agreements between labor and management to laws that regulate false advertising and promote fair trade.
The requisite elements that must be established to demonstrate the formation of a legally binding contract are (1) offer; (2) acceptance; (3) consideration; (4) mutuality of obligation; (5) competency and capacity; and, in certain circumstances, (6) a written instrument.
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...