The Carbolic Smoke Ball Case

By: J.C.

Hey, y’all, it’s J.C. here today. I’ve been feeling frustrated by the preposterous number of inaccurate facts recently being spread and I wanted to do some research about how it can be stopped because sometimes it feels like it can’t be. Upon doing this, I found a lawsuit from 100 years ago that made me feel like 1) maybe there is hope in legal systems (sometimes) and 2) that there is a precedent in this field.

The court case is called Carlill V Carbolic Smoke Ball, which is centered around an advertisement posted by the company on November 13th, 1891. The company, Carbonic Smoke Ball was a company that sold smoke balls that promised to protect customers from contracting influenza. To promote their company, they posted this advertisement, promising £100 to any person to contract influenza after correctly using the product.

£100 reward will be paid by the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company to any person who contracts the increasing epidemic influenza colds, or any disease caused by taking cold, after having used the ball three times daily for two weeks, according to the printed directions supplied with each ball. £1000 is deposited with the Alliance Bank, Regent Street, showing our sincerity in the matter. During the last epidemic of influenza many thousand carbolic smoke balls were sold as preventives against this disease, and in no ascertained case was the disease contracted by those using the carbolic smoke ball.

Mrs. Carlill was a user of said product and followed the instructions, using the ball 3 times daily for two weeks, and she contracted influenza subsequently. She went to redeem the £100 compensation promised to her, and the company refused, ignoring multiple letters, and finally asking her to come to the office daily to prove she was correctly using the product. Subsequently, Mrs. Carlill brought her claim to court where her barrister (a type of lawyer in British law) argued that between her reliant, correct, usage and the advertisement created a contract between her and the company, while the company stated that there had been no serious contract made. The trial judge gave judgment in her favor, and even though the companies appealed, that claim was dismissed, and she received the £100 (about $10,000 US dollars in 2000).

So, you may be asking why this relates to misinformation in today’s world. It’s because we make contracts with companies, whether it be official or not, to use their product with the assumption that they have our best interest in mind and that they will be honest with us. That isn’t the case in today’s world. Companies can create false narratives that they back with the same logic seen in the case above, that there was no serious contract made between the user and the company. This has bred a culture that condones the spreading of misinformation without repercussions. This is not the case. We need to remind companies that we hold them to a standard of truth and when they do not honor our contracts, we will do our own research to distinguish between facts and fiction.

Thanks for tuning in! Per the usual, keep authenticating and discovering! J.C.