Appeals Court Rules Contract Not Valid After ‘Material Modifications’


Changes to a contract invalidated a business owner’s agreement to sell his auto dealership, the Illinois Third District Court of Appeal has ruled. In Finnin et al v. Bob Lindsay Honda-Toyota, 3-05-0428 (June 29, 2006), the court ruled that a trial court properly granted summary judgment to the defendant, because the plaintiffs made material changes to the contract that was allegedly breached.

The dispute dates to March of 2002, when the three plaintiffs, including Michael Finnin, approached defendant Robert Lindsay about selling his Toyota-Honda dealership in Knox County. The parties, and their lawyers, worked out the details of the sale over several months and eventually signed an agreement incorporating those details. In August, an assistant to Lindsay’s attorney sent a copy of the agreement, with all of the agreed-on conditions that were then current, and with Lindsay’s signature. On receipt, the plaintiffs’ attorney noticed two mistakes, including a substantially lower purchase price than the parties had agreed on. The attorneys discussed the problem at the time, and Lindsay’s attorney suggested that the draft be returned so that he could send out a corrected version. The plaintiffs’ attorney took no action.

Eight or nine days later, Lindsay himself phoned Finnin to tell him that he was selling the dealership to another buyer. Finnin and his fellow plaintiffs decided they still wanted to buy the dealership, and their attorney made the necessary changes to the draft that day. Lindsay still sold the dealership to the third party, and the plaintiffs sued for breach of contract. The trial court granted Lindsay summary judgment, saying that even though the changes plaintiffs made to the contract were consistent with the parties’ intent, they consisted of a counteroffer to his offer, and thus there was no contract to breach.

The Third District Court of Appeal agreed. In its analysis, the appeals court noted that Illinois law has long required that an acceptance must conform exactly to an offer in order to create a contract. If any changes at all are made in the acceptance, the court said, it is a nonbinding counteroffer. That’s true even in this case, where the court agrees that the changes merely reflected the parties’ intent. It also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the Uniform Commercial Code should apply, noting that the UCC applies to merchants rather than investors. Thus, it upheld the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment to the defendant.

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