Ayer v. Western Union

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Ayer v. Western Union
Court Maine Supreme Judicial Court
Citation 10 A. 495
Date decided August 24, 1887


In 1887, Mr. Ayer, the owner of a lumber company in Maine, went to a Western Union to send a telegram to a buyer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Ayer requested the following exact message be sent by telegram: "WILL SELL 800 M LATHS, DELIVERED AT YOUR WHARF, TWO TEN NET CASH. JULY SHIPMENT. ANSWER QUICK." This message meant that Ayer was selling 800 sets of 1,000 laths (wood planks) for $2.10/(1,000 laths).

Western Union Telegraph Company ("Western Union") sent the telegram with its usual terms & conditions including that Western Union isn't liable for mistakes in transmission. Ayer didn't play for the additional repeating service to confirm the telegram from the sender.

The buyer in Philadelphia received the telegram. The cost per 1,000 laths was mistakenly transmitted as "TWO NET CASH" instead of "TWO TEN NET CASH." Thus, the buyer thought the cost would be $2.00/(1,000 laths) instead of $2.l0/(1,000 laths).

The Philadelphia buyer immediately replied his acceptance. Subsequent exchange of letters between Ayer & the buyer revealed the mistake in the Western Union telegram transmission.

The buyer dug in that he was entitled to $2.00/(1,000 laths). Ayer reluctantly acceded to the buyer's position by shipping the laths at the lower rate of $2.00/(1,000 laths).

Procedural History

Ayer sued Western Union for $0.10/(1,000laths) * (800 sets of 1,000 laths) = $80 ($2,700 in 2023).


Is the party that chooses a specific method of transmission to communicate an offer liable for any mistakes in that transmission?

What happens when a telegraph operator (in the 1880s) accidentally leaves out a keyword in an offer for sale?


Yes. The party that chooses a specific method of transmission to communicate an offer is liable for any mistakes in that transmission.


Justice Emery: Where there is an error in transmission, either the seller or the buyer will suffer a loss.


Western Union has completely stopped offering telegraph service since 2006.