Contracts/Privity of contract
The doctrine of privity of contract is a common law principle which provides that a contract cannot confer rights or impose obligations upon any person who is not a party to the contract.
The premise is that only parties to contracts should be able to sue to enforce their rights or claim damages as such. However, the doctrine has proven problematic because of its implications for contracts made for the benefit of third parties who are unable to enforce the obligations of the contracting parties.
Third party rights[edit | edit source]
Privity of contract occurs only between the parties to the contract, most commonly contract of sale of goods or services. Horizontal privity arises when the benefits from a contract are to be given to a third party. Vertical privity involves a contract between two parties, with an independent contract between one of the parties and another individual or company.
If a third party gets a benefit under a contract, it does not have the right to go against the parties to the contract beyond its entitlement to a benefit. An example of this occurs when a manufacturer sells a product to a distributor and the distributor sells the product to a retailer. The retailer then sells the product to a consumer. There is no privity of contract between the manufacturer and the consumer.
This, however, does not mean that the parties do not have another form of action: for instance, in Donoghue v. Stevenson – a friend of Ms. Donoghue bought her a bottle of ginger beer, which contained the partially decomposed remains of a snail. Since the contract was between her friend and the shop owner, Mrs. Donoghue could not sue under the contract, but it was established that the manufacturer was in breach of a duty of care owed to her. Accordingly, she was awarded damages in the tort of negligence for having suffered gastroenteritis and "nervous shock".
History[edit | edit source]
Prior to 1861 there existed decisions in English Law allowing provisions of a contract to be enforced by persons not party to it, usually relatives of a promisee, and decisions disallowing third party rights. The doctrine of privity emerged alongside the doctrine of consideration, the rules of which state that consideration must move from the promise, that is to say that if nothing is given for the promise of something to be given in return, that promise is not legally binding unless promised as a deed. 1833 saw the case of Price v. Easton, where a contract was made for work to be done in exchange for payment to a third party. When the third party attempted to sue for the payment, he was held to be not privy to the contract, and so his claim failed. This was fully linked to the doctrine of consideration, and established as such, with the more famous case of Tweddle v. Atkinson. In this case the plaintiff was unable to sue the executor of his father-in-law, who had promised to the plaintiff's father to make payment to the plaintiff, because he had not provided any consideration to the contract.
The doctrine was developed further in Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre v. Selfridge and Co. Ltd. through the judgment of Lord Haldane.
Privity of Contract played a key role in the development of negligence as well. In the first case of Winterbottom v. Wright (1842), in which Winterbottom, a postal service wagon driver, was injured due to a faulty wheel, attempted to sue the manufacturer Wright for his injuries. The courts however decided that there was no privity of contract between manufacturer and consumer.
This issue appeared repeatedly until MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. (1916), a case analogous to Winterbottom v Wright involving a car's defective wheel. Judge Cardozo, writing for the New York Court of Appeals, decided that no privity is required when the manufacturer knows the product is probably dangerous if defective, third parties (e.g. consumers) will be harmed because of said defect, and there was no further testing after initial sale. Foreseeable injuries occurred from foreseeable uses. Cardozo's innovation was to decide that the basis for the claim was that it was a tort not a breach of contract. In this way he finessed the problems caused by the doctrine of privity in a modern industrial society. Although his opinion was only law in New York State, the solution he advanced was widely accepted elsewhere and formed the basis of the doctrine of product liability.
Exceptions[edit | edit source]
Common law exceptions[edit | edit source]
There are exceptions to the general rule, allowing rights to third parties and some impositions of obligations. These are:
- Collateral Contracts (between the third party and one of the contracting parties)
- Trusts (the beneficiary of a trust may sue the trustee to carry out the contract)
- Land Law (restrictive covenants on land are imposed upon subsequent purchasers if the covenant benefits neighbouring land)
- Agency and the assignment of contractual rights are permitted.
- Third-party insurance - A third party may claim under an insurance policy made for their benefit, even though that party did not pay the premiums.
- Contracts for the benefit of a group, where a contract to supply a service is made in one person's name but is intended to sue at common law if the contract is breached; there is no privity of contract between them and the supplier of the service.
References[edit | edit source]
- Privity of Contracts: Contracts for the benefits of third parties, Law Commission
- Drive Yourself Hire Co (London) v Strutt, 1 Q.B. 250 (1954).
- Beatson, J, Q.C. (1998). Anson's Law of Contract (27th Ed.). Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-825262-5