Monday, March 4, 2013
We posted earlier in the semester about the baffling case Columbia Nitrogen v. Royster. Victor Golberg (pictured) wrote to us to recommend his book chapter on the subject in his Framing Contract Law (2007). Professor Goldberg names Columbia Nitrogen, together with Nanakuli Paving as a "Terrible Twosome," that should render law professors apoplectic. That is so because when courts use course of dealing or custom to set aside fied price terms, contracting parties can have "little confidence in their ability to predict the outcomes if their disputes do end up in litigation" (p. 162).
John Murray, writing in 1986, praised the decision for evidencing "a sophisticated judicial understanding of the major modifications in contract law" and for its "sophistication with respect to [UCC §] 2-207." But Professor Goldberg sees a darker story, in which CNC's counsel attempted to undo, by whatever means necessary, what had turned out to be a bad bargain." As a result, says Professor Goldberg, the court "converted a straightforward agreement into an incoherent mess" (p. 187).
Happily, according to Professor Goldberg, Columbia Nitrogen is not followed. Contractual relationships are governed by two complementary systems: legal enforcement, which has strict rules, and social enforcment, which is governed by informal norms. The mistake of the court and the "potential cost of Columbia Nitrogen" is to infer legal rules from social rules in a way that allows legal rules to hamstring informal social norms (p. 188).
It is a nice piece of wisdom to pull out of a troublesome opinion. The full details of the case, going well beyond what is available in the published opinion, can be found in PRofessor Goldberg's book.