Ben-Shahar and Strahilevitz, ‘Interpreting Contracts via Surveys and Experiments’

Abstract
Interpreting the language of contracts may be the most common and least satisfactory task courts perform in contract disputes. This Article proposes to take much of this task out of the hands of lawyers and judges, entrusting it instead to the public. The Article develops and tests a novel regime – the ‘survey interpretation method’ – in which interpretation disputes are resolved through large surveys of representative respondents, by choosing the meaning that a majority supports. This Article demonstrates the rich potential for this method to examine variations of contractual language that could have made an intended meaning clearer. A similar survey regime has been applied successfully in trademark and unfair competition law for decades to interpret precontractual messages, and this Article shows how it could be extended to interpret contractual texts. The Article focuses on the interpretation of consumer contracts as the primary application of the proposed method, but demonstrates how the method could also apply to contracts between sophisticated parties. To demonstrate the technique, this Article applies the survey interpretation method to five real cases in which courts struggled to interpret contracts. It then provides normative, pragmatic, and doctrinal support for the proposed regime.

Omri Ben-Shahar and Lior Jacob Strahilevitz, Interpreting Contracts via Surveys and Experiments, New York University Law Review Volume 92, Number 6 (December 2017).

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