The Peculiar Case of Lucy v. Zehmer

by Samuel Blackington

There are two certainties in life which we can hardly debate: that common law is the result of an ever-growing web of statutes and precedents and that getting intoxicated with friends inevitably leads to questionable decisions. However, in the rare instance where these two facts interact, we cannot help but be extremely curious. This rare interaction is what makes the case of ​Lucy v. Zehmer​, a case before the Virginia Supreme Court, so interesting. The case itself revolved around a simple appeal to enforce specific performance, but upon further examination of the facts, it becomes a story about the dangers of alcohol and the standing of napkins as valid contracts in a court of law.

On December 20th, 1952, Plaintiff W. O. Lucy visited a restaurant owned by the defendant, A. H. Zehmer armed with a bottle of whiskey.[1] For the last few years, Lucy had made it explicitly clear he intended to purchase Zehmer’s 471.6 acres of land and was even verbally promised yet declined the sale years prior.[2] However, Lucy never let the lost sale go and on that night something changed. In the spirit of “boys will be boys,” Zehmer and Lucy proceeded to drink myriad liquors and spirits, with the former most likely being intoxicated not only on the alcohol but the jovial atmosphere as well. Eventually, the topic of selling Zehmer’s land came up during the night. According to the defendant, he believed the discussion to be a joke.[3] The joke in question was one perpetuated on the last few years of discussion on the topic of the defendant selling his property to the plaintiff. As such, he convinced his wife of the comedic nature of doing so, and both signed a napkin in the restaurant upon which he would agree to sell his land for $50,000. The next week, Lucy hired an attorney and made clear that he intended to turn the napkin into a binding legal document.[4] After writing to Zehmer hoping to clarify that the sale would proceed, Lucy was rebuffed but remained determined to finish his work. Zehmer insisted that he was misled by the atmosphere that night and furthermore was too intoxicated to consent to such a sale.[5] Later, the appeal was filed and eventually reached the Supreme Court of the State of Virginia.

Upon evaluation of the facts of the case and their applicability to the law, the court would render their decision. The plaintiff hoped for the contract’s specific performance to be enforced by dismantling the defendant’s argument.[6] In regards to the allegation that Zehmer was too inebriated to consent, it was established that his wife recommended that he drive Lucy home that night from the restaurant.[7] ​​Furthermore, due to his ability to recognize the gravity of the situation, such as by noting that this would remove the possibility of his son inheriting the land,[8] it could be further established he was not too intoxicated. In the eyes of the court, if he was able to make the decision to drive home then it could be purported that he could recognize the discussion as a serious business transaction.[9] ​​Secondly, the court viewed the circumstances regarding specific performance to entail that there was no clear intention of “fraud, misrepresentation, sharp dealing or other inequity”.[10] Beyond this, due to the belief that there would be no concrete reason in which the defendant would be led to believe it was a joke and that both parties were acting in good faith, the court rendered a decision unanimously. The majority opinion was that specific performance would be enforced and the sale would proceed.[11]

There are a plethora of takeaways from the decision and its implications for the field of contract law can be explored in great detail. This helped to establish in the State of Virginia that as long as an agreement is extrapolated and signed by two cognizant parties acting in good faith, the medium in which the contract is written may not be grounds for dismissal. Furthermore, the argument that the defendant was too inebriated to consent to such an agreement cannot simply be established on that sole fact. Simply put, the outcome of the case was that “[a] person cannot set up that he was merely jesting when his conduct and words would warrant a reasonable person in believing that he intended a real agreement”.[12] In essence, while the joviality of drinking with friends may lead to bad decisions or regrets, one can most likely take solace in the fact that they haven’t agreed to sell a farm on a napkin.

[1] Lucy v. Zehmer, 196 Va. 493, 496 (1954).

[2] Id. at 495.

[3] Id. at 498.

[4] Id. at 496.

[5] Id. at 500.

[6] Lucy v. Zehmer, 196 Va. 493, 494 (1954).

[7] Id. at 500.

[8] Id. at 499.

[9] Id. at 500.

[10] Id. at 504.

[11] Id. at 504.

[12] Lucy v. Zehmer, 196 Va. 493, 503 (1954).