Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company (1892)

Published On: 1st March, 2024

Authored By: Rakshita Sharma
Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

PETITIONER: Mrs. Carlill

DEFENDANT: Carbolic Smoke Ball Company

BENCH: 3 Judge-Bench consisting of Justice Lindley, Justice Bowen, Justice Smith

CITATION: [1893] 1 QB 256; [1892] EWCA Civ 1

DECIDED ON: 7th of December 1892


The case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball[1] Company revolves around an advertisement published by the defendant, Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, promising a reward of £100 to anyone who contracts influenza after using their smoke ball product according to specified instructions. The plaintiff, Mrs. Carlill, purchased and used the smoke balls but later caught influenza. The defendant rejected her claim for the reward, leading Mrs Carlill to file a lawsuit seeking the promised amount.


The initial court ruled in favor of Mrs Carlill, prompting the defendant to appeal the decision.


The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company introduced an innovative advertising strategy by promoting the Carbolic Smoke Ball as a reliable remedy for various ailments, including influenza, hay fever, coughs, colds, headaches, bronchitis, laryngitis, whooping cough, and other throat-related issues. Expressing confidence in the effectiveness of their product, the company claimed that the smoke ball not only treated influenza but also acted as a preventive measure against the common flu. A pivotal component of their marketing campaign was the assurance that individuals who contracted a cold or influenza despite using their product could demand £100 from the company, provided the product was used for a specified period.

To reinforce their commitment, the company disclosed having deposited £1000 in a specific Alliance Bank to cover potential claims arising from their bold advertisement. Carlill, having diligently followed the prescribed procedure for using the carbolic smoke ball, still fell ill. Consequently, she initiated legal action against the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, seeking £100 as per the advertised terms. The court ruled in her favor, prompting the defendants to file an appeal.


  1. Whether the advertisement constituted a binding promise or was merely an exaggeration.
  2. Determination of the existence of a binding contract.
  3. Did Mrs Carlill have a requirement to convey her acceptance of the offer to the company?
  4. Examine whether Mrs. Carlill provided valid consideration for the £100 offered by the defendant.


The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company[2] argued that the advertisement couldn’t be considered a binding contract for several reasons:

  • Vagueness: The terms in the advertisement were unclear and open to interpretation, making it difficult to know what exactly was being promised and under what conditions.
  • Practical difficulties: The lack of specific time limits and verification methods made it impractical to enforce the offer fairly.
  • Lack of acceptance: There was no evidence that anyone explicitly communicated their acceptance of the offer, which is typically required for a contract to be formed.

Therefore, the company argued that the advertisement was intended to be a promotional statement, not a legally binding offer.


In response to the company’s claims, the plaintiff argued that the advertisement did function as a valid contract because of several key points:

  • Clarity: The promise wasn’t unclear or misleading. It was a straightforward guarantee that if the product didn’t work, the company would pay out a certain amount.
  • Action: To show their commitment, the company even deposited a large sum of money in a bank account as proof of their intention to follow through. This act went beyond mere words and demonstrated serious intent.
  • Price: By purchasing the smoke ball, the plaintiff fulfilled the requirement of “consideration,” which means offering something of value in exchange for the company’s promise.
  • Structure: The advertisement contained many features like those found in a formal contract, particularly a type called a “unilateral contract” where one party makes a promise in exchange for someone else taking a specific action, like buying the product.

Essentially, the plaintiff argued that the advertisement wasn’t just a catchy marketing claim, but a genuine offer backed by evidence of serious intent that met the necessary requirements for a valid contract.[3]


The English Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Carlill, affirming that the contract was binding. The judges’ rationale can be summarized as follows:

Justice Lindley, in essence, declared the advertisement as an explicit promise. According to this commitment, anyone contracting the flu, despite using the smoke ball as directed by the company, would be entitled to £100. Lindley justified his decision as follows:

  1. The advertisement was not a mere boast or exaggeration, as it contained a specific statement: “£1000 is deposited with the Alliance Bank, showing our sincerity in the matter.” This statement indicated the company’s sincerity in offering the reward.
  2. The promise made by the company was binding, constituting a unilateral offer to the world The offer did not require explicit acceptance but was open to anyone who fulfilled the specified conditions.
  3. The advertisement was not vague; its language could be construed as a promise, reasonably leading consumers to believe they were entitled to £100 if they contracted the flu despite using the smoke ball.
  4. Lindley pointed out that as it was an ongoing offer, notification of acceptance did not have to come before the performance. Express acceptance was not required, and the act of performing the specified conditions implied acceptance of the offer.
  5. Consideration existed, as the company benefited from increased sales and consumers incurred a direct inconvenience in using the smoke ball as per the advertised conditions.

Justice Bowen concurred with Lindley, outlining his reasoning in three points:

  1. An offer to the public could form a contract if anyone fulfilled the conditions, with their performance constituting acceptance and consideration.
  2. Specific notification of acceptance was not mandatory in such cases.
  3. Valid consideration existed, as the company stood to profit from product sales, and the £1000 deposit demonstrated their sincerity in fulfilling the bargain if the product failed.

Justice Smith aligned with the reasoning of Bowen and Lindley, leading to a unanimous dismissal of the appeal. Consequently, Carlill received compensation of £100.


The concept of “ratio decidendi” indeed refers to the legal principles or the rationale upon which a court’s decision is based. However, it’s important to note that the specific example you mentioned about the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company pertains to the famous case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, which took place in 1893 in England.

In the Carlill case, the court held that the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company was bound by its advertisement promising to pay £100 to anyone who used their product and still contracted influenza. The court’s decision was grounded in the principle that the advertisement constituted a unilateral contract, and the use of the smoke ball by the claimant amounted to acceptance of the company’s offer.

The key elements of the case were the clear and specific terms of the offer in the advertisement, the performance of the requested act by the claimant (using the smoke ball), and the company’s failure to fulfill its promise. The court’s ratio decidendi emphasized the importance of looking at the parties’ intentions and the objective manifestation of that intention through their actions.

So, in summary, the ratio decidendi in the Carbolic Smoke Ball case was the recognition of a valid and binding contract based on the specific terms of the advertisement and the subsequent performance by the claimant as acceptance of the offer. The deposit of £1000 with the bank confirmed the seriousness of this promise, establishing that it was not a mere puff. Communication of acceptance was not required, as Mrs. Carlill accepted the offer through her actions.


Bowen LJ, during his deliberation, provided a legal response to a set of circumstances not directly relevant to the present case, rendering it an obiter dictum. This was done to enhance clarity in addressing Mrs. Carlill’s case. To illustrate, Bowen LJ presented a hypothetical scenario involving a lost dog advertisement and the immediate actions of individuals in response to such an offer. While these particular facts were not in contention in the current case, Bowen LJ’s statements could serve as a persuasive precedent in future cases involving similar circumstances. The impact of this decision is evident in its influence on subsequent cases, with records from the LEXIS information system indicating 70 instances where Carlill has been cited. Notably, the decision was applied in Peck v Lateu (1973) and distinguished in AM Satterthwaite & Co v New Zealand Shipping Co (1972).

In subsequent cases, Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company has been cited and applied, shaping the outcomes of various legal disputes.


This case, widely referenced in English common contract law, serves as a notable illustration of unilateral contracts and highlights associated challenges. It offers insights into the fundamental elements of typical contracts, presenting an exception by eliminating the need for acceptance of the offer and traditional considerations. While serving as a foundational case for contract law, it also underscores the complications arising from the uncertainties inherent in unilateral contracts. Additionally, the case’s impact extends to the concept of the privity of contracts, contributing to ongoing debates within commercial circles. In essence, the well-articulated judgment has enduring implications that continue to spark discussions and analysis in the realm of contract law.



[1] [1893] 1 QB 256; [1892] EWCA Civ 1

[2] [1893] 1 QB 256; [1892] EWCA Civ 1



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