Center for Contract and Economic Organization
Program in the Law and Economics of Capital Markets
For decades there has been substantial uncertainty regarding when the law will impose precontractual liability. The confusion is partly attributable to the unfortunate case of Hoffman v. Red Owl Stores and to the unusual degree of scholarly attention that it has attracted. A careful examination of the record of the Hoffman case reveals facts that are much different from conventional understanding. The disagreement between Joseph Hoffman and Red Owl Stores resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding between the parties regarding the terms of Hoffnan's capital contribution to the franchise. The misunderstanding was largely a product of Hoffnan's penchant for moving assets around during the negotiation period, his failure to clarify the terms of his $18,000 capital investment, and the "no debt" condition attached to loans from his father-in-law. These facts show that neither promissory estoppel, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, or a failure to negotiate in good faith would have been a proper ground for imposing liability on Red Owl Stores. This result is consistent with a systematic survey of the case law showing that courts overwhelmingly decline to impose liability for representations made during preliminary negotiations. The preoccupation with reliance on preliminary negotiations has led scholars to ignore an important recent development in the law. A number of modern courts now impose a duty to bargain in good faith when parties make reliance investments following a "preliminary agreement" in which the parties agree to some terms but leave others open for further negotiation. Professor Scott argues that lawyers and academic commentators should turn their attention away from the Hoffman paradigm and instead focus on key issues that the contemporary cases have yet to resolve: when have parties reached sufficient agreement to trigger the duty to negotiate further in good faith, and precisely what does that duty entail?
Robert E. Scott,
Hoffman v. Red Owl Stores and the Myth of Precontractural Reliance,
Ohio St. L.J.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/295