Taylor v Caldwell [1863]

Taylor v Caldwell [1863] EWHC QB J1 is a landmark case in English contract law, marked by Mr Justice Blackburn's opinion that introduced the doctrine of common law impossibility. The case involved Caldwell & Bishop, owners of Surrey Gardens & Music Hall, and Taylor & Lewis, who agreed to rent the venue for £100 a day.

The contract outlined Taylor's plans for concerts and fetes on specific dates, featuring extravagant entertainments such as singing performances, military bands, fireworks, and more. The defendants were responsible for providing most British performers, and Taylor & Lewis agreed to pay £100 sterling after each concert. However, a week before the first concert, the music hall burned down.

In his judgment, Justice Blackburn first affirmed that the agreement was a contract, despite the use of the term "lease". He clarified that, under the prevailing property law, this contract did not grant legal possession to Taylor & Lewis.

Blackburn J argued that the rule of absolute liability applied only to positive, definite contracts, not those with an underlying condition. He emphasised that the continued existence of Surrey Gardens & Music Hall was an implied condition for the contract's fulfilment. The destruction of the music hall, beyond either party's fault, rendered performance impossible.

Drawing from the civil code of France and Roman law, Blackburn J asserted that if a contract's essential aspect is destroyed without fault, the parties are released from their obligations. He drew an analogy to contracts requiring personal performance, where the death of the performing party exempts their executors from liability. In this context, Blackburn J concluded that both parties were excused from their contractual obligations due to the unforeseen destruction of the music hall.
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