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5 Classic Contracts Cases Made Easy for 1Ls

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

First-year contracts class is where some of the most classic law school cases can be found. Hairy hands? Chicken? You'll remember these wacky situations years later.

So let's take a quick break from the case books and try a somewhat more entertaining approach to a few of the all-time classic cases from Contracts...

1. Hawkins v. McGee (New Hampshire 1929)

The "hairy hand" case is known even among non-law students because it appears in The Paper Chase, which you watched to prepare for school, right? Hawkins' hand was scarred nine years earlier. He went to Dr. McGee to fix it; McGee promised "a one hundred percent good hand." McGee used skin from Hawkins' chest to repair the scar. Not only didn't it work, but Hawkins' hand grew thick hair on it. The case is notable (not just for the hairy hand) because the court used "expectancy" as the value of Hawkins' damages; that is, the value of a "one hundred percent good hand."

2. Hadley v. Baxendale (English Exchequer Court 1854)

Hadley operated a mill that ground grain into flour. One of the wooden shafts that operated the mill broke, so he had it sent off for repair, using Baxendale to deliver the shaft. Baxendale failed to deliver it to the repair company on time, causing Hadley to lose business. Hadley sued for the profits he lost after the expected delivery date. The court held that these types of damages, called consequential damages, could only be fairly levied if both parties were aware of them at the time the contract was made. If there were special circumstances -- such as that Hadley would lose money if the delivery were late - then he had to let Baxendale know beforehand.

3. Frigaliment Importing Co. v. BNS International Sales Corp. (New York 1960)

"What is chicken?" An epistemological quandary lies at the heart of this case. BNS sold chickens to Frigaliment. When the chickens arrived, Frigaliment discovered they were "stewing hens," not "broiler chickens," the former being lower-quality. BNS was a German company, and in German, the English translation of "chicken" can mean either type of chicken; BNS claimed that "chicken" always means "broiler chickens." This case is about determining the definition of a word when each party has a different interpretation of an ambiguous word. The court ultimately dismissed the case, as Frigaliment didn't prove its definition should control.

4. Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. (Queen's Bench 1893)

The carbolic smoke ball was a device the eponymous company assured could prevent anyone from catching influenza. It was so confident, in fact, that its advertisement for the carbolic smoke ball offered a reward of £100 to anyone who contracted influenza after using it as directed. Mrs. Carlill used it and still contracted influenza. She wrote to the company asking for his reward, but they refused to pay, so she sued. The court held that the advertisement was a unilateral contract and normally, Carbolic would need notice that Mrs. Carlill accepted by purchasing. However, because this was a mass advertisement, no such notice was required.

5. Hamer v. Sidway

"Consideration" is a tricky subject in first-year contracts. Sidway was the executor of William Story's estate. Story promised his nephew $5,000 if the nephew would refrain from smoking, drinking, swearing, and gambling until he turned 21. The nephew turned 21, then wrote to his uncle that he had fulfilled the agreement. Story promised to pay, but died shortly thereafter. Through a series of assignments, Hamer ended up with the right to the money. The court decided that the nephew should have received the money. Consideration can be forbearance of something that someone is lawfully permitted to do; here, the nephew gave up things that he was allowed to do in exchange for $5,000. (The best question, though, is what Story got in exchange. Happiness? Knowledge that his nephew wouldn't screw his life up? It's not really clear.)

Got suggestions for cases we missed? Tweet us @FindLawLP.

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