Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co (1893): what is a unilateral contract?

Areas of applicable law: Contract law – Unilateral contract – Offer:

Main arguments in this case: In a unilateral offer, the offeror becomes bound as soon as the specific act has been performed.

The fact of the case: The case is an example of a unilateral contract as well as an offer. In 1893 a company called Carbolic Smoke Ball advertised their product called “smokeballs” in a newspaper and claimed that anyone who used it, would not catch flu. The company also claimed that if someone caught flu after using the smoke ball, a reward of £100 would be paid to the user. To emphasise their claim, the company even deposited £1000 in the bank. The claimant, Mrs Carlill saw the advertisement and purchased the ball but still caught flu after using it. She claimed the reward of £100 but the company refused to pay on the basis that the advertisement was just a selling puff and could not possibly have made a contract with everyone, including the claimant, who acted upon it.

The company’s claimed failed and the court held that the advertisement was indeed acted as an offer and once accepted and acted upon by the claimant it formed a contract and therefore the claimant was entitled to the reward.

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