The parol evidence rule
is a substantive
Substantive law is the statutory or written law that defines rights and duties, such as crimes and punishments , civil rights and responsibilities in civil law. It is codified in legislated statutes or can be enacted through the initiative process.Substantive law stands in contrast to procedural...
Common law is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action...
rule in contract
A contract is an agreement entered into by two parties or more with the intention of creating a legal obligation, which may have elements in writing. Contracts can be made orally. The remedy for breach of contract can be "damages" or compensation of money. In equity, the remedy can be specific...
cases that prevents a party to a written contract from presenting extrinsic evidence
The law of evidence encompasses the rules and legal principles that govern the proof of facts in a legal proceeding. These rules determine what evidence can be considered by the trier of fact in reaching its decision and, sometimes, the weight that may be given to that evidence...
that contradicts or adds to the written terms of the contract that appears to be whole. The supporting rationale is that since the contracting parties have reduced their agreement to a single and final writing, the extrinsic evidence of past agreements or terms should not be considered when interpreting that writing, as the parties had decided to ultimately leave them out of the contract.
The rule applies to parol (oral) evidence, as well as other extrinsic evidence (such as written correspondence that does not form a separate contract) regarding a contract. If a contract is in writing and final to at least one term (integrated), parol or extrinsic evidence will generally be excluded. However, there are numerous exceptions to this general rule, including for partially-integrated contracts, agreements with separate consideration, to resolve ambiguities, or to establish contract defenses.
To take an example, Carl agrees in writing to sell Betty a car for $1,000. Betty argues that Carl told her that she would only need to pay Carl $800. The parol evidence rule would generally prevent Betty from testifying to this conversation because the testimony ($800) would directly contradict the written contract's terms ($1,000).
In order for the rule to be effective, the contract in question must first be a final integrated writing; it must, in the judgment of the court, be the final agreement between the parties (as opposed to a mere draft, for example).
A final integrated agreement is either a partial or complete integration. If it contains some, but not all, of the terms as to which the parties have agreed then it is a partial integration. This means that the writing was a final agreement between the parties (and not mere preliminary negotiations) as to some terms, but not as to others. On the other hand, if the writing were to contain all of the terms as to which the parties agreed, then it would be a complete integration. One way to ensure that the contract will be found to be a final and complete integration is through the inclusion of a merger clause, which recites that the contract is, in fact, the whole agreement between the parties. However, many modern cases have found merger clauses to be only a rebuttable presumption
Both in common law and in civil law, a rebuttable presumption is an assumption made by a court, one that is taken to be true unless someone comes forward to contest it and prove otherwise. For example, a defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent until proved guilty...
The importance of the distinction between partial and complete integrations is relevant to what evidence is excluded under the parol evidence rule. For both complete and partial integrations, evidence contradicting the writing is excluded under the parol evidence rule. However, for a partial integration, terms that supplement the writing are admissible. To put it mildly, this can be an extremely subtle (and subjective) distinction.
There are a number of exceptions to the parol evidence rule. Extrinsic evidence can always be admitted for the following purposes:
- To aid in the interpretation of existing terms.
- Under the UCC, Extrinsic evidence can never be used when dealing with the tranfer of goods greater than or equal to $500.00.
- In am minority of jurisdictions (Florida, Califronia, Colorado and Wisconsin) Extrinsic evidence is barred from being used to interpret a contract
- To show that in light of all the circumstances surrounding the making of the contract, the contract is actually ambiguous, thus necessitating the use of extrinsic evidence to determine its actual meaning (California law).
- To resolve an ambiguity
Ambiguity of words or phrases is the ability to express more than one interpretation. It is distinct from vagueness, which is a statement about the lack of precision contained or available in the information.Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity...
in the contract.
- To disprove the validity of the contract.
- To show that an unambiguous term in the contract is in fact a mistaken transcription of a prior valid agreement. Such a claim must be established by clear and convincing evidence, and not merely by the preponderance of the evidence.
- To correct mistake
A mistake is an error.Mistake may also refer to:*Mistake , or 'Honest mistake' an excuse for non-performance of a contract*Mistake , or mistake of fact, a defense to criminal charges on the grounds of ignorance of a fact...
- To show wrongful conduct such as misrepresentation
Misrepresentation is a contract law concept. It means a false statement of fact made by one party to another party, which has the effect of inducing that party into the contract. For example, under certain circumstances, false statements or promises made by a seller of goods regarding the quality...
In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual; the related adjective is fraudulent. The specific legal definition varies by legal jurisdiction. Fraud is a crime, and also a civil law violation...
In jurisprudence, duress or coercion refers to a situation whereby a person performs an act as a result of violence, threat or other pressure against the person. Black's Law Dictionary defines duress as "any unlawful threat or coercion used... to induce another to act [or not act] in a manner...
, unconscionability (276 N.E.2d 144, 147), or illegal purpose on the part of one or both parties.
- To show that consideration
Consideration is the central concept in the common law of contracts and is required, in most cases, for a contract to be enforceable. Consideration is the price one pays for another's promise. It can take a number of forms: money, property, a promise, the doing of an act, or even refraining from...
has not actually been paid. For example, if the contract states that A has paid B $1,000 in exchange for a painting, B can introduce evidence that A had never actually conveyed the $1,000.
- To identify the parties, especially if the parties have changed names.
- To imply or incorporate a term of the contract.
- To make changes in the contract after the original final contract has been agreed to. That is, oral statements can be admitted unless they are barred by a clause in the written contract.
In order for evidence to fall within this rule, it must involve either (1) a written or oral communication made prior to execution of the written contract; or (2) an oral communication made contemporaneous with execution of the written contract. Evidence of a later
communication will not be barred by this rule, as it is admissible to show a later modification of the contract (although it might be inadmissible for some other reason, such as the Statute of Frauds
The statute of frauds refers to the requirement that certain kinds of contracts be memorialized in a signed writing with sufficient content to evidence the contract....
). Similarly, evidence of a collateral agreement - one that would naturally and normally be included in a separate writing - will not be barred. For example, if A contracts with B to paint B's house for $1,000, B can introduce extrinsic evidence to show that A also contracted to paint B's storage shed for $100. The agreement to paint the shed would logically be in a separate document from the agreement to paint the house.
Though its name suggests that it is a procedural evidence rule, the consensus of courts and commentators is that the parol evidence rule constitutes substantive contract law.
Additional information on the parol evidence rule may be found in Restatement 2d of Contracts § 213.
The parol evidence rule is a common trap for consumers. For example:
- Health club contracts. You enroll in a health club, and the salesperson tells you that the contract can be cancelled. You later decide you would like to cancel, but the written contract provides that it is non-cancellable. The oral promises of the salesperson are generally non-enforceable. However, the salesperson in misleading you into the terms of the contract constitutes a misrepresentation and you may seek to rescind the contract.
- Auto sales agreements. You purchase a used car, and the salesperson tells you it is "good as new". But the contract provides that the sale is as is
As is is a legal term used to disclaim some implied warranties for an item being sold. Certain types of implied warranties must be specifically disclaimed, such as the implied warranty of title...
. Again, in most circumstances the written contract controls. However, this may constitute misrepresentation if it exceeds reasonably accepted "puffing" or "dealers' talk."
A timeshare is a form of ownership or right to the use of a property, or the term used to describe such properties. These properties are typically resort condominium units, in which multiple parties hold rights to use the property, and each sharer is allotted a period of time in which they may use...
s. While in certain jurisdictions, and in certain circumstances, a consumer may have a right of rescission
In contract law, rescission has been defined as the unmaking of a contract between parties. Rescission is the unwinding of a transaction. This is done to bring the parties, as far as possible, back to the position in which they were before they entered into a contract .-In court:Rescission is an...
, some people attend real estate sales presentations at which they may feel pressured into immediately signing binding contracts. Evidence that the contract was entered into under duress will not be precluded by the parol evidence rule.