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Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc and Chrysler Corporation Case Brief

Summary of Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc and Chrysler Corporation., 32 N.J. 358; 161 A.2d 69; Supreme Court of New Jersey, [1960]

Facts:  On May 7, 1955 Plaintiff Claus Henningsen purchased an automobile from Defendant Bloomfield Motors, Inc., manufactured by Defendant Chrysler Corporation.  This vehicle was to be a Mother’s Day present for his wife, Helen, and this intention was communicated to the dealer. However, the wife was not a party to the purchase.

The purchase order was a one-page printed form.  The form contained an express warranty by which the manufacturer warranted the vehicle free from defects in material or workmanship and that it was expressly in lieu of all other warranties express or implied.  Most of the wording within the form was in an “easy to read” font, whereas the two paragraphs which dealt with the consumers’ rights were written in an extremely small, “difficult to read” font.  Additionally, other statements which were in the dealer’s interest were written in a way so as to draw attention to them.  It was clear from the way in which the purchase order was formatted throughout that items which were in the dealer’s interest were emphasized and items in the consumers’ interest were de-emphasized.  The section dealing with the warranty contained 8-1/2 inches of fine print, which admittedly was not read by Plaintiff Claus.

The vehicle was serviced and then received by Mr. and Mrs. Claus on May 9, 1955.  On May 19, 1955, Plaintiff Helen Henningsen, wife of Claus Henningsen, was injured while driving the vehicle and the damage was so extensive that the car was totaled.  The insurance inspector stated that, based upon the manner in which the accident occurred, there was definitely a mechanical defect or failure.  The vehicle only had 468 miles on it at the time of the accident.

Mrs. Henningsen sued for damages related to her injuries.  Her husband sued for compensation of his consequential losses, specifically the property damage to the automobile and the medical and hospital expenses and loss of his wife’s society and services.  The complaint was based upon breach of express and implied warranties and upon negligence.

History:   Since the proof was not sufficient to make a prima facie case as to the negligence of either the manufacturer or the dealer, the negligence claim was immediately dismissed.  Therefore, it was given to the jury with the sole issue being that of implied warranty of merchantability.  Trial court found for Plaintiffs.  Defendants appealed.

Issue: Did the express warranty signed by Mr. Henningsen supercede the implied warranty of merchantability?  Is Mrs. Henningsen able to recover damages, even if she wasn’t the purchaser?

Holding:  No to the first issue.  Yes to the second issue.  The Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the holding of the lower court.

Rule/Analysis:  The attempted disclaimer by the manufacturer of an implied warranty of merchantability and of the obligations arising from that would be inimical to the public good and therefore made the express warranty invalid, with the court questioning the validity of the contract.

Additionally, when a buyer or member of his family drives a vehicle and suffers injury because of negligent manufacture, liability exists for the manufacturer.

Summary:  The rights of the buyer and seller had to be evaluated realistically and in a just manner, giving weight to the social policy created by these rights.  In this case, it was obvious that the manufacturer was attempting to avoid the warranty obligations which would normally be expected in an automobile sale by requiring the purchaser to sign the express agreement.   This basically amounted to an “unconscionable provision,” as the weaker party [Mr. Henningsen] was required to sign this warranty or he would not be able to purchase the automobile.  There was no bargaining allowed, and the purchaser was without authority to alter the contract.

The gross inequality of the consumer and the manufacturer was apparent to the court and it was viewed that such control by the auto manufacturer was inimical to the public good.  Therefore the express warranty was voided and the Plaintiffs prevailed.

Since the plaintiffs prevailed and the wife was injured while driving the defective vehicle, she was able to recover damages, as the manufacturer was held liable.



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