Erlanger v New Sombrero Phosphate Company: HL 31 Jul 1878

Rescission needs Restitutio in Integrum

A syndicate, of which Erlanger (Orse Erlinger) was the head, purchased from an insolvent company an island, said to contain valuable mines of phosphates. Erlanger, who managed the purchase, prepared to get up a company to take over the island and work the mines. The sale of the island to the company was made nominally by a person who had no real interest in the island.
Held: Erlanger was in a fiduciary position to the company and was obliged to faithfully state to the company the facts which applied to the property and which would influence the company in deciding on the reasonableness of acquiring it.
The question was whether the contract should be allowed to stand.
It could not be sustained.
Where a fiduciary relationship between parties may be the occasion of unfair advantage to one of them, the burden of proof lies on that party to show that he has not used that advantage for his own benefit. The value of depreciation of a phosphate mine could be measured in order to make counter-restitution in equity.
Lord Blackburn said: ‘It is, I think, clear on principles of general justice, that as condition to a rescission there must be a restitutio in integrum. That parties must be put in statu quo. See Lord Cranworth in Addie v The Western Bank. It is a doctrine, which has often been acted upon both at law and in equity. But there is a considerable difference in the mode in which it is applied in Courts of Law and Equity, owing, as I think, to the difference of the machinery which the Courts have at their command. I speak of these Courts as they were at the time when this suit commenced, without inquiring whether the Judicature Acts make any, or if any, what difference.
It would be obviously unjust that a person who has been in possession of property under the contract which he seeks to repudiate should be allowed to throw back on the other party’s hands without accounting for any benefit he may have derived from the use of the property, or if the property, though not destroyed, has been in the interval deteriorated, without making compensation for that deterioration. But as a Court of Law has no machinery at its command for taking an account of such matters, the defrauded party, if he sought his remedy at law, must in such cases keep the property and sue in an action for deceit, in which the jury, if properly directed, can do complete justice by giving as damages a full indemnity for all that the party has lost; see Clarke v Dixon and the cases there cited.
But a Court of Equity could not give damages, and, unless it can rescind the contract, can give no relief. And, on the other hand, it can take accounts of profits, and make allowance for deterioration. And I think the practice has always been for a Court of Equity to give this relief whenever, by the exercise of its powers, it can do what is practically just, though it cannot restore the parties precisely to the state they were in before the contract.’
Lord Penzance said: ‘A contract of sale effected under such circumstances is, I conceive, upon principles of equity liable to be set aside.
The principles of equity to which I refer have been illustrated in a variety of relations, none of them perhaps precisely similar to that of the present parties, but all resting on the same basis, and one which is strictly applicable to the present case. The relations of principal and agent, trustee and cestui que trust, parent and child, guardian and ward, priest and penitent, all furnish instances in which the Courts of Equity have given protection and relief against the pressure of unfair advantage resulting from the relation and mutual position of the parties, whether in matters of contract or gift; and this relation and position of unfair advantage once made apparent, the Courts have always cast upon him who holds that position, the burden of shewing that he has not used it to his own benefit.’


Lord Penzance, Lord Blackburn


(1878) LR 3 App Cas 1218, [1874-80] All ER 271, [1878] UKLawRpAC 48




Contracts (Applicable Law ) Act 1990


England and Wales


At CANew Sombrero Phosphate Co v Erlanger CA 26-Feb-1877
Sir George Jessel MR said: : ‘. . persons in a fiduciary position must make a full and fair disclosure when they are about to sell property to those towards whom they stand in that relation’ . .

Cited by:

CitedRatiu, Karmel, Regent House Properties Ltd v Conway CA 22-Nov-2005
The claimant sought damages for defamation. The defendant through their company had accused him acting in such a way as to allow a conflict of interest to arise. They said that he had been invited to act on a proposed purchase but had used the . .
CitedHalpern and others v Halpern and Another (No 2) CA 3-Apr-2007
The parties had settled by compromise a dispute about the implementation of a will before the Beth Din. It was now said that the compromise agreement had been entered into under duress and was unenforceable. The defendant said that rescission could . .
CitedCaterpillar Logistics Services (UK) Ltd v Huesca De Crean QBD 2-Dec-2011
The claimant sought an order to prevent the defendant, a former employee, from misusing its confidential information said to be held by her. Her contract contained no post employment restrictions but did seek to control confidential and other . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Trusts, Undue Influence, Equity, Contract

Updated: 07 September 2022; Ref: scu.236341