Friday, March 2, 2012

Stranger than Fiction: The Meaning of "If"

The Supreme Court just released its decision in an interesting case, Richard v. Time Inc.

It's basically a false advertising case.  Mr. Richard, a Quebec resident, received a letter from Time which Time calls an 'invitation to participate' in a sweepstakes contest, and was left with the impression that he had already won a prize in excess of $800,000.

Remember folks, even if it comes from Time Magazine, if you receive a letter telling you you've won a contest you didn't enter, take it with a grain of salt.

The Supreme Court included depictions of the materials he received in its decision, which can be found here.  (Scroll to the bottom of the page for the images.)  It's pretty easy to see the dispute here.

There are several BIG BOLD CAPITALIZED CENTRED STATEMENTS which suggest that Mr. Richard had won the grand prize.


That's one.  There were others saying much the same thing.  We are now authorized to pay the sum.  A cheque is on its way.  You'll forfeit the entire amount if you fail to respond to this notice.  And, on the side, a list of winners and the prizes they'd won, including Mr. Richard near the top of the list with this prize.

But prior to each such statement, there's very fine print which puts context to the statements.

If you have and return the Grand Prize winning entry in time and correctly answer a skill-testing question, we'll confirm that


Read in full, it says, "If you win, we'll say 'You won'."  But the language isn't really all that clear, and it's definitely designed to give somebody the impression that he's already won.  Even when you read the fine print, it's easy to think "Oh, that's fine", because unless you specifically focus on 'have', you'll think that you're being told that you do have it.  So, okay, I can return it, I hope I can answer the skill-testing question, then I get my cash, right?

There's even a full-text paragraph in the letter highlighting that 'you probably don't believe this is really happening'..."But it's absolutely true:  Mr Jean Marc Richard is now positively guaranteed to be awarded $833,337.00 - one of the biggest single cash payments ever made to ANYONE in a sweepstakes presented by TIME - if you have and return the Grand Prize winning entry within 10 days of receipt!"

Note the inclusion of the parenthetical remark, breaking apart the "positively guaranteed" from the "if"?  Tricky, tricky, tricky.

In some cases, the pretty absolute bold statements follow on the heels of the disclaimer built into a lengthier paragraph.

Essentially, this was clearly drafted with the expectation that people would not read it carefully, and would therefore think that they had won.

The Quebec Court of Appeal had found that the document was not misleading.  The Supreme Court, by contrast, found that the document was misleading within the meaning of the applicable Quebec laws, and therefore awarded damages to Mr. Richard.

Far from the $833,337 Mr. Richard was seeking, though, he was awarded only nominal compensatory damages in the amount of $1000, and the Supreme Court further found that punitive damages were appropriate, but only in the amount of $15,000.

In other words, Mr. Richard took this matter all the way to the Supreme Court, and succeeded, but only won $16,000.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

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