Peerless Coffee and Case Law

If you were to exit the main branch of the Alameda County Law Library and head southwest on Oak Street for about eight blocks, you would be standing outside the corporate headquarters of Peerless Coffee, a company formed and based in Oakland since 1924. In celebration of its 80th anniversary in 2004, Peerless unveiled its new logo by Bay Area designer, Michael Vanderbyl

The logo depicts a ship docked at San Francisco’s Pier 40 (one might note that the actual Pier 40 is to the south of the Bay Bridge, while the image portrays the pier to the north).  The image is done in a vintage postcard style and represents the arrival of coffee beans in the Bay Area from exotic locales.  For those who have studied contract law, the name “Peerless” and an image of a ship may call to mind something rather different: the famous “Peerless Case,” Raffles v. Wichelhaus (1864) 159 Eng. Rep. 375 (Exch. Div.); 2 Hurl & C. 906.

In Raffles, the plaintiff had contracted to sell a certain number of bales of cotton to the defendants.  This cotton was to arrive in Liverpool on a ship named the Peerless, inbound from Bombay.  As it happened, there were actually two ships named the Peerless sailing from Bombay to Liverpool laden with cargo of cotton, one arriving in October and one in December.  The Court of Exchequer ruled that there was a latent ambiguity and that parol evidence should be admitted at trial to establish which ship each party meant.  For nearly a sesquicentennial, this case has stood for the proposition that where both parties are mistaken as to an essential term of a contract, no contract is formed because there is no consensus ad idem, meeting of the minds.  This case is equally well-remembered for the irony and impossibility of two ships simultaneously being “peerless.”

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