The Louisiana Supreme Court recently addressed the impact of contractual “errors” in Cynthia Fry Perionnet and Elizabeth Fry Franklin v. Matador Resources Company, 2012-2292, 2012-2377, — So. 3d –.
The Perionnet case involved a dispute over the intent of a contract to extend a mineral lease. The property owners believed that the lease was extended as to only 168.95 acres of nonproducing land. The defendant/lessors argued that the contract contemplated that the lease would extend to the entire 1850.34 acres to include producing wells. Plaintiffs/property owners argued that their unilateral error regarding the terms of the contract was ground for rescission. The jury ruled in favor of the defendant/lessors. The Court of Appeal reversed. The Supreme Court granted writs.
The Perionnet Court began its opinion with an overview of basic tenets of contract law. The Louisiana Civil Code defines a contract as “an agreement by two or more parties whereby obligations are created, modified, or extinguished.” La. C.C. art. 1906. Contracts are formed through offer and acceptance. La. C.C. art. 1927. Once formed, contracts have “the effect of law for the parties and may be dissolved only through the consent of the parties or on grounds provided by law.” La. C.C. art. 1983. One such “ground” under Louisiana law is “error.” La. C.C. art. 1948.
The Louisiana Civil Code recognizes two forms of error: mutual error (both parties are mistaken) or unilateral error (only one party is mistaken). However, for either error to cause the dissolution of a contract, the error (1) must effect the cause of the obligation and (2) the other party must have known that the matter impacted by the error was the reason for the contract. La. C.C. art. 1949. In a case of mutual error, the court can reform the contract. Either partial or full rescission is the only remedy available for unilateral error. La. CC. art. 1952.
A party challenging a contract for unilateral error must also prove that the error was excusable. “Louisiana jurisprudence is sprinkled with cases which deny relief to the parties who claim an agreement should be invalidated because of unilateral error which is caused, in large part, by the complaining party’s inexcusable ignorance, neglect or want of care.” Id. p. 25.
The Perionnet Court found that the plaintiffs’ alleged mistake was inexcusable. The defendants demonstrated that: 1) plaintiffs could show no excuse for failing to read and understand the contract; 2) plaintiffs’ agents who negotiated and reviewed the contract were self-proclaimed experts in oil and gas; and 3) the original lease was on the plaintiffs’ agent’s own forms. The Court found a “sea of flags” in the written agreement that should have notified the experienced plaintiffs that the agreement extended to the entire property. Therefore, the Court found that the mistake was easily detectable and could have been rectified by a minimal amount of care, i.e. “by simply reading the document and/or requesting simple changes to the written offer before acceptance.” Id. at 30.
The Supreme Court’s Perionnet decision serves as a healthy reminder of a basic concept – read your contracts. Although to err may be human, it can affect your bottom line.