Mrs Curtis took a white satin wedding dress to the defendant's shop for cleaning. She was handed a 'receipt' which she was asked to sign. She asked why she needed to sign and was told that it was because Chemical Cleaning would not accept liability for certain risks, including damage to beads and sequins. The plaintiff signed. In fact the receipt included the following condition:
"This or these articles is accepted on condition that the company is not liable for any damage howsoever arising, or delay."
The dress was returned with a stain and Mrs Curtis claimed damages. The defendants sought to rely on the exclusion clause in the receipt.
The trial judge accepted that Mrs Curtis had been told that the receipt included exclusion from certain specified risks. As the exclusion was in fact much broader than that, he concluded that there had been an innocent misrepresentation as to the scope of the exclusion clause contained in the receipt.
When a signature to a condition, purporting to exempt liability, is obtained as a result of misrepresentation (innocent or otherwise) the party making that representation cannot rely on the exemption
His Lordship held that, what was conveyed to the plaintiff by the statement of the assistant was:
'... that there were certain risks, in this case beads and sequins, which the defendants were not prepared to accept. ... That, I think, plainly is a misrepresentation. The words on the document purported to exempt them from all liability, howsoever arising. In those circumstances, I think. owing to that misrepresentation, this exception never became part of the contract between the parties.'
Lord Singleton agreed with Lord Somervell
His Lordship began by noting that this was a case
'of importance because of the many cases nowadays when people sign printed forms without reading them, only to find afterwards that they contain stringent clauses exempting the other side from their common-law liabilities. In every such case it must be remembered that, if a person wishes to exempt himself from a liability which the common law imposes on him, he can only do it by an express stipulation brought home to the party affected, and assented to by him as part of the contract ... If the party affected signs a written document, knowing it to be a contract which governs the relations between them, his signature is irrefragable evidence of his assent to the whole contract, including the exempting clauses, unless the signature is shown to be obtained by fraud or misrepresentation ...'
The question then became what was sufficient to constitute a misrepresentation in this context. His Lordship continued:
'In my opinion any behaviour, by words or conduct, is sufficient to be a misrepresentation if it is such as to mislead the other party about the existence or extent of the exemption. If it conveys a false impression, that is enough. If the false impression is created knowingly, it is a fraudulent misrepresentation; if it is created unwittingly, it is an innocent misrepresentation; but either is sufficient to disentitle the creator of it to the benefit of the exemption. ...'
His Lordship further observed that:
'... a representation might be literally true but practically false, not because of what it said, but because of what it left unsaid; in short, because of what it implied. This is as true of an innocent misrepresentation as it is of a fraudulent misrepresentation. When one party puts forward a printed form for signature, failure by him to draw attention to the existence or extent of the exemption clause may in some circumstances convey the impression that there is no exemption at all, or at any rate not so wide an exemption as that which is in fact contained in the document. The present case is a good illustration. The customer said in evidence: "When I was asked to sign the document I asked why? The assistant said I was to accept any responsibility for damage to beads and sequins. I did not read it all before I signed it". In those circumstances, by failing to draw attention to the width of the exemption clause, the assistant created the false impression that the exemption only related to the beads and sequins, and that it did not extend to the material of which the dress was made. It was done perfectly innocently, but nevertheless a false impression was created. ... it was a sufficient misrepresentation to disentitle the cleaners from relying on the exemption, except in regard to beads and sequins.'
His Lordship then addressed the second point made by counsel for the defendant. Counsel claimed that 'even if there was an innocent misrepresentation, the plaintiff cannot in point of law avoid the terms of the contract' because 'an innocent misrepresentation gives no right to damages but only to rescission' and 'rescission was not possible because the contract ...'
In response, His Lordship stated:
'That is an attractive argument, but I do not think that it is right. ... In my opinion when the signature to a condition, purporting to exempt a person from his common-law liabilities, is obtained by an innocent misrepresentation the party who has made that misrepresentation is disentitled to rely on the exemption. Whether you call that a rule of law or equity does not matter in these days. We have got too far beyond 1873 to trouble about distinctions of that kind. ...'