The Limits of Terms and Conditions in Hidden Contracts

Can a corporation use your face for any purpose or torture you because you signed a contract agreeing to such cruelty?  

In Black Mirror’s new episodes, lawyers explain to Annie Murphy’s character that the terms and conditions she agreed to with Streamberry, a Netflix parody, are airtight. They “advise” that Murphy’s character should just ignore the fact that a streaming platform is turning her life into a reality television show even though they are defaming her.  

About a decade earlier, South Park released an episode where the Apple Corporation abducted characters to form a human centipede to power their latest iPod. A fictional Steve Jobs justifies this treatment on the basis that each of the characters had agreed to this experiment when they accepted the terms and conditions of their Apple phone.  

In realty though, corporations would never be able to defame or kidnap people no matter what is written into a contract.    

Are Hidden Terms Permitted?

Many jurisdictions do not permit businesses to bury complex legal clauses in consumer agreements. This doesn’t mean that parties are excused because they didn’t read the contract or simply scrolled down without reading it. However, a contract that literally makes important contract terms in smaller font or uses highly technical jargon to hide the contract’s true intent may not be enforceable. In order for a contract to form, there must be a “meeting of the minds” between the two parties. If one party hides its intent or otherwise tries to trick the other party, the agreement may be void.  

Courts will generally look at the circumstances of the contract’s formation to determine if an agreement was obtained through deception. If one party threatens or actually uses physical force to get the other party to sign the contract, then the contract was obtained through duress and therefore unenforceable. If one party lies about the contents of the contract, then the contract was fraudulent and unenforceable. Likewise, if one party wasn’t able to read the contract because of the actions of the other, then the contract will not be enforceable. This may include tactics such as time pressure or knowingly putting the contract in a language that the other party cannot read.  

However, electronic acceptance of a contract is not a defense. Electronic acceptance, such as pressing a button that reads “accept” does not constitute duress or fraud. There is no time pressure as the user is typically at home or at work, far from the party that wrote the contract. The contract may not be valid if an unauthorized person accepted, such as a small child or a thief. If the user knowingly and willfully accepted though, then they cannot argue they were tricked into accepting poor contractual terms and conditions.  

Can a Contract Allow A Corporation to Perform Illegal Acts or Intentionally Harm Someone?

Contracts can require consumers to release a company from liability in certain instances. A consumer can agree to release a corporation from liability for any negligent acts by the business. A gym may require that users promise not to sue the gym if the user has a weight thrown on their foot, fall off a treadmill, or is otherwise injured while exercising.  

However, corporations cannot release themselves from intentional infliction of harm. A gym can require that a user release the gym from any responsibility for a back injury while working out. On the other hand, that same contract cannot release the gym from liability if a gym employee walks up to the user and shoots him in the back with a pistol. A company can only be released from their own negligence, not from intentional acts to harm others.  

This means that contracts where the user “agrees” to be defamed, kidnapped, or tortured will not be honored. These types of contracts will most likely not be enforced by a court because they violate public policy. If even a judge is unwilling to dismiss such cases on grounds that such a contract is illegal, most jurors would likely emphasize with an individual who is trapped in a situation like the South Park centipede or Annie Murphy in Black Mirror.  

Do I Need the Help of a Personal Injury Attorney?

If you have sustained a personal injury because of the carelessness of another, you should contact a personal injury attorney. A skilled personal injury lawyer can review the facts of your case, go over your rights and options, and represent you in court.

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