Tinn v Hoffman

Tinn v Hoffman & Co. (1873): A Quick Summary

Case name & citation: Tinn v Hoffman & Co. [(1873) 29 LT 271]

Year of the case: 1873

Jurisdiction: Queen’s Bench Division

Area of law: Communication of offer; acceptance

What is the case about?

Tinn v Hoffman & Co. is one of the landmark cases in contract law that throws light on the validity of cross-offers. Can a contract be said to be formed if two parties make identical offers to each other? The case attempts to address this question.

Facts of the case (Tinn v Hoffman & Co.)

Mr. Hoffman, the defendant, had offered Mr. Tinn, the plaintiff, an opportunity to purchase iron from him at a reasonable price. The offer was to sell 800 tons of iron for the price of 69s per ton. The defendant requested that the response to this proposition be sent via postal mail. In ignorance of this offer, later that same day, the plaintiff also sent him a letter with an identical offer to purchase iron on similar terms. The validity of these two offers (cross-offers) was brought up in this case. Even though he sent his letter to the defendant before receiving the defendant’s letter, the plaintiff argued that it still constituted a valid acceptance.

Issue that arose

It was unclear whether the parties had established any kind of contract about the purchase. In this regard, it was questionable whether Tinn’s letter could be regarded as an agreement to the initial offer made by Hoffman.

Also, as specified in the offer, whether acceptance had to be by post only in order to be valid.

The general rule relating to Cross offers

Cross-offers are made between two parties who are unaware of one another’s offer and who make similar proposals to one another. Such offers do not signify the other party’s acceptance of one’s offer, and as a result, there is no formal agreement.

For example, A wrote to B and offered to sell him certain products. B wrote to A on the same day, proposing to buy the same products. The letters got mixed up in the mail. Here, A and B have not reached an agreement and there is no concluded contract.

Judgment of the Court in “Tinn v Hoffman & Co.”

The Court decided that no contract for the purchase of iron had been concluded between Tinn and Hoffman. The two offers were made at the same time and did not obligate the parties to pursue any further actions. Moreover, they were coincidentally made without knowledge of one another’s offer.

The Court further held that counter offers are not the same as cross offers. And to form a valid contract, there has to be a valid communication that denotes an offer and acceptance. As had been stated in Hoffman’s offer, there was no acceptance by post. In addition, the Court said that although acceptance was sought by post, if the plaintiff had accepted by an equally fast method (such as telegram or in person), the same would also have been valid.

It was determined that Tinn’s letter, in this case, served as a fresh offer rather than a declaration of agreement and that more discussion would have been needed to make Tinn’s response serve as an acceptance of Hoffman’s offer.

Thus, the decision was held in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff, Mr. Tinn, could not be said to have accepted the offer of which he was not aware. The offeree must be aware of the offer before he can assent to it. Thus, the letter did not constitute a valid acceptance.

In general, the law follows that knowledge of an offer is needed in order to constitute its acceptance. Many other cases deal with this point. Some of these are R v Clarke (1927) 40 CLR 227, Williams v Carwardine (1833), and Gibbons v Proctor [(1891) 64 L.T. 594].

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