In contracts, we have two main types of mistakes: mutual and unilateral. One is “good” for the people affected (mutual), one is “bad” (unilateral). The difference is based on fundamental contract principles of having a required “meeting of the minds” during contract creation. If there isn’t because both sides were mistaken about the purpose, intent or meaning of the agreement, then the agreement can be dissolved. On the other hand, if only one side says they were confused, then the contract will probably hold as written – as it’s not the responsibility of one party to explain to the other party how a contract will operate.
This is important because as a contracts person, it is your responsibility to know the language in your agreements and know how such language will be used to guide behavior. You do not and will not have the luxury of pleading ignorance. Which is why, when I see something like this, I have the tendency to get a little upset. I had the chance to take a cruise last year. It took me all of about 3 minutes to learn how cell phones would operate once on board. The cruise line sent me a book about onboard topics two months prior to sailing… and there was even a guidebook in my room explaining it all again. It’s pretty simple, actually. The ship has an onboard cellular system designed to provide cell signal while at sea. It’s a repeater – takes your signal, boosts it and forwards it to a satellite system to enable communication.
For this service, the cruise line bills you through your carrier. Your phone will tell you that you’re roaming, too. But if you’re near a land-based cell system (like when you’re sitting in port), it’s possible that your phone will pickup the ship’s repeater and not the nearest land-based transmitter. Which is apparently what happened to that gentleman. He didn’t know which system it picked up – and he gambled with a two-hour “call”. He lost. Sorta’. Now AT&T ate part of the bill from a customer service perspective – good for them – based on the idea that somehow, the guy should’ve been told that the ship’s system was active, even when in port.
This is a unilateral mistake. And a potentially painful one at that ($28,000 for an individual isn’t cheap). Did AT&T have to reduce the bill? No. Should they? Maybe. But your vendors (or customers), now, more than ever, are going to be less likely to eat a unilateral mistake – even if it’s an honest one. Lesson? If you don’t know the answer, ask!