Smith v Hughes [1871]

Smith v Hughes [1871] LR 6 QB 597 is a notable English contract law case that established the principle of objective interpretation of parties' conduct when entering into a contract. The case involved a mistake made by Mr Hughes, a horse trainer, who purchased a quantity of oats based on a sample he had been shown. However, Hughes had misidentified the type of oats, and his horse refused to eat them. Smith, the oat supplier, sued Hughes to complete the sale as agreed, arguing that the oats delivered were the ones Hughes agreed to buy.

The court, presided over by Blackburn J, delivered a judgment emphasising the objective interpretation of conduct in contract formation. The decision rejected the idea of a unilateral mistake being a ground for rescission of a contract. Blackburn J held that the buyer, in a specific sale without express warranty, must take the purchased item even if it lacks a particular quality unless there is fraud or deceit by the seller.

The case also addressed the issue of consensus ad idem (meeting of the minds) and the concept of caveat emptor (buyer beware). Blackburn J asserted that the buyer had the responsibility to inspect and form their own judgment when purchasing a specific item. The seller was under no obligation to inform the buyer of potential mistakes unless there was fraud or deceit involved.

The judgment distinguished between a buyer's belief or motive and an essential condition of the contract. Even if the buyer believed the oats were of a different type, the contract remained binding unless the seller had committed fraud or deceit. The court rejected the argument that a contract could be void because the parties did not share the same intentions or beliefs.

While the case's narrow proposition applies to commercial sales by sample, its wider proposition regarding consumer purchases was later substantially reduced. The principle that a consumer making their own assessment and later finding the item to be unsatisfactory cannot avoid the contract is not directly relevant to the facts of this case.

In summary, Smith v Hughes is a foundational case that underscores the objective interpretation of parties' conduct in contract law, particularly in commercial sales by sample, and reinforces the principle of caveat emptor.
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