The Restatement’s Second Mistake

The contract defenses of mistake and misrepresentation can be used to unravel deals as big as a corporate merger and as small as the sale of a used car. These two defenses, while conceptually distinct in theory, contain a significant amount of overlap in practice, causing courts to conflate the two legal standards. A misrepresentation of one party, when believed, results in a mistaken belief of the other, and both defenses address fundamental flaws in bargaining that throw the contracting parties’ consent into question. The coextensiveness of the defenses suggests that, absent an overriding normative justification, the legal test and remedy should be the same for each. Such a normative justification exists only in the case of fraudulent misrepresentation which, unlike mistake or nonfraudulent misrepresentation, involves the intentional infliction of a dignitary harm. In such cases, punishment and deterrence are appropriate normative goals but neither are addressed by currently prevailing common law. Providing a single test for cases of misrepresentation and mistake with recourse to punitive damages in cases of fraud would harmonize the defenses with their normative underpinnings and eliminate inefficient redundancies in the common law.

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