[editor’s note: this is part six in a year-long series on famous legal cases.]
On November 13, 1891, The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company advertised a product it had made: a “smoke ball,” an early sort of sinus flusher that released carbolic acid through a tube into a person’s nose so that the acid would flush out viral infections such as the flu (a major concern at the time, given the 1889-1890 flu pandemic.) In the advertisement, Carbolic claimed it would pay £100 to anyone who got sick with influenza after using its product according to the instructions provided with it and money had been aside to show Carbolic was genuine about that.
Mrs. Louisa Elizabeth Carlill saw the advertisement, bought one of the balls, and used it three times daily for nearly two months until she contracted the flu. She then claimed the £100. Carbolic ignored two letters from her husband (a solicitor) and responded to the third by saying that Louisa must not have followed the instructions correctly and that she would have to come into their office on a daily basis and check with their secretary to see that she was using it correctly.
Instead, Louisa sued for breach of contract.
The Queen’s Bench held for Louisa (twice, the second time being on appeal by Carbolic.) Each time they based their reasoning that the actual advertisement was definite and specific enough to constitute a contract, and that Louisa had acted in accordance with that contract correctly.
The case is one of the earliest ones law students may study in the USA as a way of learning what a “unilateral contract” may look like.
But Carbolic Smoke Ball also had multiple real world effects. The founder of Carbolic Smoke Ball Company reformed the company to include liability insurance and altered the advertisement to have more terms and conditions, using the case in ad campaigns to show that the smoke ball really worked since few others had come forward besides Louisa. The medical profession at the time, attempting to end practices of quack medicine, seized on the case to educate people about genuine flu treatment. And the case has since served as a basis for laws protecting people from false or misleading advertisement.
As for Louisa, she lived to be 96. She died of old age, but also- ironically- from a touch of influenza.