Harris v Nickerson

Harris v Nickerson (1873): A Case Summary

Case name & citation: Harris v Nickerson (1873) L.R. 8 QB 286

Year of the case: 1873

Jurisdiction: Queen’s Bench Division

Area of law: Offer and invitation to treat

What is the case about?

This is a famous contract law case that discusses the difference between an offer and a mere intention of declaration.

Facts of the case (Harris v Nickerson)

In this case, Nickerson, an auctioneer advertised in a newspaper that a sale of office furniture will be held on a certain date. A person with the intention to buy such furniture came from a distant place for the auction, but the auction was cancelled. The lots of furniture that ought to be auctioned for sale on that day were withdrawn.

The plaintiff (Harris) filed a suit against the defendant for recovering his loss of time and expenses. He contended that the withdrawal of goods by the defendant, that were advertised for sale amounted to a breach of contract.

According to the plaintiff, the auction was an offer and he had given his acceptance to the auction by acting upon it, i.e., by attending the auction. Thus, he claimed that the defendant should be held liable.

Issues raised

Did the advertisement to put up the goods for auction constitute a valid offer?

Can the auctioneer be held liable for withdrawing the goods from the auction?

Judgment of the Court in “Harris v Nickerson”

The Court decided in favor of the defendant.

It was held as follows:

In a case where an auctioned sale has been cancelled, the plaintiff cannot recover travel expenses since there is no contract. He cannot file a suit against the auctioneer for his loss of time and expenses because the advertisement was merely a declaration of intention to hold the auction. It did not amount to an offer to sell the articles described in the newspaper. Neither there was a warranty that the articles so advertised would be put up in the auction. It was a mere advertisement. Thus, it could be easily withdrawn if the auctioneer decided to do so due to any circumstances. Hence, there was no contract between the defendant and the plaintiff who acted upon the advertisement. Not to mention, even an offer may be withdrawn before it is accepted.

The essence of the Case

This case signifies that an offer is different from a mere intention of declaration.

Sometimes a person may make a statement without any objective of creating a binding obligation. Such a statement or declaration only indicates that he is willing to negotiate and that an offer will be made or invited in the future. For example, in an auction, people who are interested (to buy) make bids/quotations and it is then up to the auctioneer to either accept or reject those offers.

In addition, merely because anyone might act upon the statement or declaration, it shall not give rise to a contract.

Conclusion

In this case, the bench made it quite apparent that there is no contract and hence no liability should be placed on someone who publishes an advertisement for sale. It is not an offer but rather in the nature of an invitation to offer and thus, no legal obligations are formed.

The interpretation of this case may not only be restricted to an auction but also to businesses or advertisements to sell goods in general, though it should be noted that advertisements to sell goods are distinct from advertisements to receive rewards, which represent a legally binding unilateral offer that is accepted by anyone who complies with the terms as stated in the advertisement. The former does not constitute an offer to sell goods because it only represents the willingness of the advertiser to sell, which comes prior to concluding an offer. As a result, there is no contract and no liability is created.

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