BetterLawNotes-5 (2)


Suppose that a customer uses an automatic ticket machine to purchase a ticket for a journey or to gain entrance to a car park. At what point is the contract made? Who makes the offer and when? The point was considered by Lord Denning MR in Thornton v Shoe Lane Parking.

Thornton v Shoe Lane Parking Ltd [1971] 2 QB 163

Thornton wanted to park his car in the defendant’s multi-storey car park. At the entrance was a sign giving the scale of charges and stating that cars were parked at their owners’ risk. Thornton drove up to the entrance, whereupon a light turned from red to green and a ticket emerged from an automatic machine. Thornton took the ticket and drove on into the garage where he parked, and left, his car. When he returned to the garage, Thornton paid the appropriate fee at the office but then sustained injury, partly due to the defendant’s negligence, as he put some belongings in the boot of his car. The defendant denied liability based on an exclusion clause which it claimed was incorporated into the contract. On the face of the ticket issued by the automatic machine were the words “issued subject to the conditions of issue as displayed on the premises”. Inside the car park was a panel on which various conditions were printed, including one excluding liability for injury however caused. However, the defendant’s argument was rejected by the judge who awarded Thornton damages. The defendant’s appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal. While Megaw LJ and Sir Gordon Wilmer expressed no conclusion on when the contract between with Thornton was formed, Lord Denning MR thought that the defendant had made an offer by holding the machine out as ready to accept money. As such, according to Lord Denning (at 169), the contract was made when Thornton put his money into the machine: 

‘The customer pays his money and gets a ticket. He cannot refuse it. He cannot get his money back. He may protest to the machine, even swear at it. But it will remain unmoved. He is committed beyond recall. He was committed at the very moment when he put his money into the machine. The contract was concluded at that time. It can be translated into offer and acceptance in this way: the offer is made when the proprietor of the machine holds it out as being ready to receive the money. The acceptance takes place when the customer puts his money into the slot.’

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