Commercial Code in the United States
Commercial codes govern business and commercial transactions and, as a codification of private law, they deal with topics including merchant shipping, corporate contracts, and the manufacture industry. There are, for example, commercial zoning codes, commercial building codes and commercial plumbing codes.
Statutory Law: The Uniform Commercial Code
Common law contract principles govern contracts for real estate and for services, obviously very important areas of law. But in one area the common law has been superseded by an important statute: the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which is the modern American state statutory law governing commercial transactions, and especially its Article 2, which deals with the sale of goods. (1)
The Uniform Commercial Code is a model law developed by the American law Institute and the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws; it has been adopted in one form or another in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the American territories. It is the only “national” law not enacted by Congress.
Before the Uniform Commercial Code was written, commercial law varied, sometimes greatly, from state to state. This first proved a nuisance and then a serious impediment to business as the American economy became nationwide during the twentieth century. Although there had been some uniform laws concerned with commercial deals—including the Uniform Sales Act, first published in 1906—few were widely adopted and none nationally. As a result, the law governing sales of goods, negotiable instruments, warehouse receipts, securities, and other matters crucial to doing business in an industrial, market economy was a crazy quilt of untidy provisions that did not mesh well from state to state.
Initial drafting of the Uniform Commercial Code began in 1942 and was ten years in the making, involving the efforts of hundreds of practicing lawyers, law teachers, and judges. A final draft, promulgated by the Institute and the Conference, was endorsed by the American Bar Association and published in 1951.
Pennsylvania enacted the code in its entirety in 1953. It was the only state to enact the original version, because the Law Revision Commission of the New York State legislature began to examine it line by line and had serious objections. Three years later, in 1956, a revised code was issued. This version, known as the 1957 Official Text, was enacted in Massachusetts and Kentucky. In 1958, the Conference and the Institute amended the Code further and again reissued it, this time as the 1958 Official Text. Sixteen states, including Pennsylvania, adopted this version.
But in so doing, many of these states changed particular provisions. As a consequence, the Uniform Commercial Code was no longer so uniform. Responding to this development the American Law Institute established a permanent editorial board to oversee future revisions of the code. Various subcommittees went to work redrafting, and a 1962 Official Text was eventually published. Twelve more states adopted the code, eleven of them the 1962 text. By 1966, only three states and two territories had failed to enact any version: Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Guam, and Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, non-uniform provisions continued to be enacted in various states, particularly in Article 9, to which 337 such amendments had been made. In 1971, a redraft of that article was readied and the 1972 Official Text was published. By that time, Louisiana was the only holdout. Two years later, in 1974, Louisiana made the Uniform Commercial Code a truly national law when it enacted some but not all of the 1972 text (significantly, Louisiana has not adopted Article 2). One more major change was made, a revision of Article 8, necessitated by the electronics revolution that led to new ways of transferring investment securities from seller to purchaser. This change was incorporated in the 1978 Official Text, the version that remains current.
From this brief history, it is clear that the Uniform Commercial Code is now a basic law of relevance to every business and business lawyer in the United States, even though it is not entirely uniform because different states have adopted it at various stages of its evolution—an evolution that continues still. (2)
The Uniform Commercial Code embraces the Jaw of “commercial transactions,” a term of some ambiguity. A commercial transaction may seem to be a series of separate transactions; it may include, for example, the making of a contract for the sale of goods, the signing of a check, the endorsement of the check, the shipment of goods under a bill of Lading, and so on. However, the Uniform Commercial Code presupposes that each of these transactions is a facet of one single transaction: the sale of and payment for goods. The Code deals with phases of this transaction from start to finish. These phases are organized according to the following “articles”:
- Sales (Article 2)
- Commercial Paper (Article 3)
- Bank Deposits and Collections (Article 4)
- Letters of Credit (Article 5)
- Bulk Transfers (Article 6)
- Warehouse Receipts, Bills of Lading, and Other Documents of Title (Article 7)
- Investment Securities (Article 8)
- Secured Transactions; Sales of Accounts and Chattel Paper (Article 9)
We now turn our attention to the sale—the first facet, and the cornerstone, of the commercial transaction. Sales law is a special type of contract law in that Article 2 applies only to the sale of goods, defined (Section 2-105) in part as “all things . . . which are movable at the time of identification to the contract for sale other than the money in which the price is to be paid. . . .” The only contracts and agreements covered by Article 2 are those relating to the present or future sale of goods.
In certain cases, the courts have difficulty in determining the nature of the object of a sales contract. The problem: How can goods and services be separated in contracts calling for the seller to deliver a combination of goods and services? This difficulty frequently arises in product liability cases in which the buyer sues the seller for breach of one of the UCC warranties. For example, you go to the hairdresser for a permanent and the shampoo gives you a severe scalp rash. May you recover damages on the grounds that either the hairdresser or the manufacturer breached an implied warranty in the sale of goods?
When the goods used are incidental to the service, the courts are split on whether the plaintiff should win. Compare Epstein v. Giannattasio, 197 A.2d 342 (Conn. 1963), in which the court held that no sale of goods had been made because the plaintiff received a treatment in which the cosmetics were only incidentally used, with Newmark v. Gimbel’s Inc., 258 A.2d 697 (N.J. 1969), in which the court said “[i]f the permanent wave lotion were sold … for home consumption . . . unquestionably an implied warranty of fitness for that purpose would have been an integral incident of the sale.” The New Jersey court rejected the defendant’s argument that by actually applying the lotion to the patron’s head the salon lessened the liability it otherwise would have had if it had simply sold her the lotion.
In two areas, state legislatures have taken the goods vs. services issue out of the courts’ hands and resolved the issue through legislation. One area involves restaurant cases, in which typically the plaintiff charges that he became ill because of tainted food. Uniform Commercial Code Section 2·314(1) states that any seller who is regularly a merchant of the goods sold impliedly warrants their merchantability in a contract for their sale. This section explicitly declares that serving food or drink is a sale, whether they are to be consumed on or off the premises.
The second type of case involves blood transfusions, which can give a patient hepatitis, a serious and sometimes fatal disease. Hospitals and blood banks obviously face large potential liability under the Uniform Commercial Code provision just referred to on implied warranty of merchantability. Because medical techniques cannot detect the hepatitis virus in any form of blood used, hospitals and blood banks would be in constant jeopardy, without being able to take effective action to minimize the danger. Most states have enacted legislation specifically providing that blood supplies to be used in transfusions are a service, not goods, thus relieving the suppliers and hospitals of an onerous burden. (3)
Uniform Commercial Code in the context of Real Estate
- “Business and the Legal Environment”, by Don Mayer, Daniel M. Warner and George J. Siedel.
- Uniform Commercial Code
- Information about Commercial Code in the Gale Encyclopedia of American Law.