Couturier v Hastie [1856]

Couturier v Hastie [1856] UKHL J3 is a notable case in English contract law that deals with the principle of common mistake. It established that a contract may be void if the subject matter of the contract does not exist at the time the agreement is made.

Couturier entered into a contract with Hastie for the delivery of corn, with both parties believing that the corn was in transit from Salonica to the UK. However, it was later discovered that the corn had already decayed and been sold by the shipmaster before the contract was made. Couturier claimed that Hastie was liable for the corn as he had acquired an "interest in the adventure" or rights under the shipping documents.

The House of Lords held that, as the corn effectively did not exist at the time of the contract, there was no present consideration, and the buyers (Hastie) were not liable to pay the price. Lord Cranworth LC emphasised that the key to the case was the construction of the contract. He stated, "Looking to the contract alone, it appears to me clearly that what the parties contemplated was that there was an existing something to be sold and bought." The court found that, due to the common mistake regarding the existence of the subject matter (the corn), the contract was void.

The case highlights the importance of the parties' shared understanding of the existence of the subject matter in forming a valid contract. If the subject matter is non-existent or has perished before the contract, there is no valid consideration, and the contract is void.
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