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