Thursday, March 25, 2010

The estate of Mr. George Edward Kent, the man who tried to stiff his home's builder out of the last installment payment.

Pictured above is the residence of Mr. George Edward Kent in Jericho, New York (on Long Island), the house that was the subject of the dispute in Jacobs & Young v. Kent, 230 N.Y. 239, 129 N.E. 889 (1921)(opinion embedded below). You will notice from the photo, at whatever resolution in which you might be able to view it, that the fact the galvanized, lap welded pipe used in the house's plumbing was not manufactured by the Reading Pipe Company is impossible to discern. Nor would you be able to discern that fact unless you tore open the walls or dug into the ground. As the opinion points out, however, the pipe used was equal in quality to that of the same type manufactured by the Reading Pipe Company. Accordingly, the court determined that Mr. Kent owed the home's builder the last installment of the contract price for the construction of the house, a payment Mr.Kent had refused to make even after living in the house for one year. His defense to the builder's claim for payment was that the contract called for the use of "wrought-iron pipe [that] must be well galvanized, lap welded pipe of the grade known as ‘standard pipe’ of Reading manufacture.’’ Instead, as mentioned above, the builder used well galvanized, wrought-iron, lap welded pipe of the same quality as Reading's "standard pipe" but that had not been manufactured by the Reading Pipe Company.

It seems to this reader, at least, that the contractual language specifying the use of pipe manufactured by Reading was to establish a measure of quality, that Mr. Kent got pipe of that quality, and that he was using the fact the pipe no one could see was not manufactured by Reading as an excuse to stiff the builder out of the last payment. If there were some reason that Mr. Kent genuinely cared to have Reading manufactured pipe rather than pipe of equal quality manufactured by another company, he is by all means entitled to contract for Reading pipe. Other than the literal language of the contract, there is no evidence in the case whatsoever that the use of pipe other than Reading pipe mattered on whit to Mr. Kent.

The reality of language is that it is always symbolic, and we are always using terms that can be read in multiple ways. If the point of contract law is to give effect to the intent of the contracting parties, why should we interpret "Reading" literally when (1) there is no apparent reason it was intended literally, and (2) there is good reason to believe Mr. Kent was insisting on the literal meaning to save him the expense of paying the home builder the final installment of the construction contract. It is not at all unusual for brand names to be used by people (even in contracts) as measures of quality rather than as literal requirements of goods manufactured solely by the company specified. If I ask you for a Kleenex, after all, I will gladly accept a Puff's tissue instead.

Jacobs & Young v Kent


  1. Wow, what a gigantic house! I could see now that the quality would definitely matter to Mr. Kent in preserving (if not increasing) the value of his residence.

    I wonder how far this "quality" argument could go. Let's say for example I wanted Anderson hard wood floors in my home and the home builder installed Muskoka wood floors. Does that mean the burden of proof would fall on me to show why I strictly asked for Anderson wood floors? Would it be enough to bring fourth an argument suggesting I wanted Anderson-quality wood made in America because I don't want Canadian-quality? (Just a hypo, I don't have a problem with Canadian wood). Would any reason suffice? If so, what kind of attorney-or client for that matter- can't think of a reason (outside of quality) for wanting Reading pipe?

    Thanks for posting the picture of the house. It's always nice seeing a case have some image to it outside of my drawings on the page margin.

    --Fatymah M. Joseph

  2. If the difference in quality and appearance between Anderson and Muskoka floors was entirely indistinguishable, I don't see the problem, but I doubt that the identity would be of the same degree as that between pipe buried in walls and under ground that had one name stamped on it rather than another. I'm not saying Kent didn't have a right to "Reading" pipe only if that's what he wanted. I'm saying that there's no good reason to believe that he cared about Reading pipe rather than Cohoes Pipe; all he appeared to care about was that the pipe was as good as Reading pipe, and that's what he got. If there were some good reason to believe he cared, he'd win the case -- just as in Dove v. Rose Acre Farm there was good reason to believe that the defendant really cared about attendance on time every single day and was paying specifically for that. Moreover, not only do I see no reason other than the indication Kent wanted only Reading pipe other than the language -- "wrought-iron pipe [that] must be well galvanized, lap welded pipe of the grade known as ‘standard pipe’ of Reading manufacture." -- I also see good reason to believe he was using the use of the word Reading as an excuse to avoid paying something he was perfectly happy with and had not previously expressed objection to. He'd lived in the house a year and never complained since the beginning of the construction through that year of residence about the use of Cohoes pipe.

    Finally, I see that house and I see a guy with too much money trying to rip off the workers who built him that estate, but I suppose I'm betraying my class biases. :)

  3. Remember, we're trying to give effect to the contracting party's intent. The whole art and difficulty in so much of this (and the whole basis of the argument that surrounds this case) lies in determining intent. Some people see the language and can't imagine that Kent wanted anything but Reading pipe. I see the language and see the use of a brand name to designate quality, I see no other reason to believe Reading pipe qua Reading pipe mattered, and I see a reason why Kent would try to take advantage of the confusion created by the language.

  4. Sidenote professor, Do you know if this house is still standing? When I go back home I would like to see if it is still in good condition if it is so... But knowing that generally area personally, there are many houses of that general size and elegance, aka known as the "Gold Coast", and the real-life inspiration to F. Scott Fitzgerald's book "Great Gatsby"

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