December 19, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver
Readers who grew up in America of the 1950s and 1960s, and lived in a house with a garage or basement will undoubtedly have warm memories of their deep freezer, also known as a chest freezer. Frozen foods were becoming the rage, as was saving money through buying in quantity, such as the sides of beef that mom or dad happily placed into the freezer.
But from the 1970s onward, as refrigerators grew in size, offering much larger frozen food sections, the deep freezer itself was unplugged and put into cold storage.
The kids grew up, moved away, but when returning to mom and dad’s home, glancing at that large, white metal box out there in the garage, remembered those good years, happy family moments, especially this visit, because dad had passed away.
“Weeks after the funeral, I was visiting mom, helping to clean the house and getting rid of so much un-needed stuff,” Arcata reader “Will” emailed, “when ‘Cal,’ a neighbor who lived right across the street came over asking if there was anything we wanted to sell. I immediately thought of the freezer.”
“Sure, your dad showed it to me and we talked of how your parents enjoyed filling it with food. I’ll give you $100 dollars for it and I don’t care if it’s working or not,” he replied. “I agreed, he handed me the money, we opened the garage door and pushed it over to his home.”
Several days later, Will received an unexpected and shocking phone call from mom’s next-door neighbor. “Cal looks like the cat who ate the canary. He is telling everyone on our block that you are the world’s biggest fool, and showing them what he found inside the freezer, wrapped in the front page of a 1965 newspaper.
“It’s money, Will, it’s $10,000 in hundred dollar bills! You never looked inside of the freezer before selling it, right? I’m so sorry.”
We ran our reader’s story by Los Angeles-based, Contracts Law professor Bryan Hull of Loyola Law School and Hanford attorney Ron Jones for their analysis. While lawyers often reach opposite — and legally valid findings with identical facts — both reached the same conclusion.
“A case like this gives new meaning to cold, hard cash!” Hull stated with a broad smile, adding, “Valid, legally enforceable contracts require mutual consent, and this freezer case is a classic example of mutual mistake.
“As a contract is a consensual transaction, we have to agree on what I am selling and what you are buying. Here, this wasn’t gambling — such as buying unknown contents at a storage facility auction — because there was an agreement on the freezer but not on contents which happened to be inside.
“Here, both Will and the neighbor were under the assumption that all the buyer was getting was a freezer, which might not even have been in working order,” Hull points out.
“This is similar to a Washington state case where a seller sold what it thought were empty containers for airplane engines without realizing that two of the containers had engines in them! Upon learning of this fact, it was successfully able to undo the sale.
“While the law does not always do the fair thing, in a case like this the court will likely find for the people who sold the freezer — they should get their cash back! This is true even if we assume Will was negligent in not looking inside the freezer to see what was there,” he concluded
“I whole heartedly agree with Professor Hull,” Jones stated, adding, “This neighbor is a real jerk! The lack of morality in keeping the money is beyond words. Why would anyone brag about this in the neighborhood?”
Jones suggested this apt title: “Neighbor Gets a Bad Case of Freezer Burn.”
“We could have hired a lawyer or gone to Small Claims Court, but mom was now living alone and elderly, so the idea of taking this guy on scared her. She was afraid of what he or his family might do, and yet philosophical, telling me:
“It was as if we never had the money, and besides, the Bible tells us ill-gotten gains takes away the life of the possessors.”
“Mr. Beaver, six months to the day that I sold the freezer, Cal’s wife died of horribly painful bone cancer. It was so strange, my mom’s words echoed in my head! I thought you would find this worth a column, Will.”
Indeed, we have, and thanks!
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.