Misrepresentation: misleading descriptions of a flat

A contract can be set aside if the purchaser was induced to enter into it by a misleading description of the property to be sold. The false statement may be made either by the seller or the seller’s agent. The false ‘statement’ may be a series of statements which cumulatively convey a misleading impression of the property.

Facts

In Joytex Development Ltd v Super Homes Ltd ([2018] HKCFI 2286) C acquired Joytex as the vehicle for the purchase of a flat in Conduit Road, Mid-Levels from its developer Super Homes Ltd (‘SHL’).

Joytex alleged that its purchase of the flat was the result of representations (which proved to be false) that the flat would have an open kitchen layout and that all necessary government approvals for implementing this layout had been, or would be, obtained.

The sales agent’s statements

W worked for the estate agent appointed as sole sales agent by SHL. W gave C a brochure. W also told C that the flat would have an open kitchen layout. C was buying the flat as an investment. W told C that the likely category of tenant for the flat would find the open kitchen layout attractive.

The floor plan in the sales brochure

The floor plans for the flat in the brochure showed an open kitchen layout but there was qualifying wording to the effect that they were ‘only for reference’. SHL had approved the contents of the brochure. C noted the floor plan but did not read the brochure in detail and did not notice the qualifying words.

The 2009 side letter (signed at the time of the provisional sale and purchase agreement)

C signed a side letter (about fixtures and fittings to be installed in the flat). The attached plans showed both open and closed kitchen designs.

The solicitor’s statement

C agreed to instruct SHL’s solicitors to act for him in the purchase. A conveyancing clerk, L, handled the transaction. The plan attached to the sale and purchase agreement did not show an open kitchen. L assured C that SHL would change the kitchen to an open kitchen layout. The assignment, like the agreement, showed a closed kitchen layout.

No approval for the open kitchen layout

It later turned out that there was no Government approval for the kitchen layout and no likelihood that such an approval would be obtained. C sought the rescission of the contract and damages on the grounds that he had entered into the contract in reliance on SHL’s misrepresentation.

The legal issues

Whether SHL made representations that the flat would have an open kitchen layout

SHL had made representations. The court could have regard to the cumulative effect of a series of events ([80]). The representation in the floor plan in the brochure was not enough since there was a statement qualifying the plan (it was for reference only) ([84] on the legal effect of qualifying statements).

On the other hand, the 2009 side letter conveyed the impression that the flat could have an open kitchen layout ([87]). SHL approved its terms ([89]). W’s statements were representations that the flat would have an open kitchen layout. The fact that her employers were the sole sales agents of SHL was relevant  ([96] – [97]). While W may have exceeded her actual authority in some of the statements she made, she was acting within the scope of her ostensible authority ([100] – [101]). L was acting within the scope of his authority when he made the relevant representations to C.

The cumulative effect of all of the factors in the previous paragraph was that SHL had represented to C that the flat would have an open kitchen layout ([110]).

Reliance

Although C was an experienced and successful businessman, he had relied on SHL’s representations. Deputy Judge Stock SC said, ‘if the effect of a contract has been misrepresented, it is not necessarily an answer to say that had the representee read the contract, he or she would have discovered the true position’ ([116]).

The qualifying words ‘in rather small print’ in the brochure were not sufficient to defeat the claim ([117]).

Falsity

The representations were false. Joytex could not establish that the misrepresentations were fraudulent.

Remedies

Joytex was entitled to rescind the contract and to recover the price paid with interest on assigning the flat to SHL.

Joytex was entitled to damages for non-fraudulent misrepresentation. The aim is to put the purchaser in the position it would have been had the contract not been made. SHL was not able to show that it had reasonable grounds for believing, and that it did believe, in the truth of the representations.

Joytex was not entitled to damages for the alleged loss of profit from an alternative investment. This required the plaintiff, ‘to show on a balance of probabilities that it would have entered into the alternative and more profitable transaction, and a real and substantial chance (as opposed to a speculative one) that the relevant third party would have transacted.’ ([151]). Joytex was unable to meet this requirement; there was no evidence to show that it viewed any other property or that it would have retained such a property had it done so ([160]).

Joytex was, however, entitled to damages to cover, for example, legal costs and stamp duty and the management fees it had paid as the owner of the property.

Michael Lower

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