Butler Machine Tool v Ex-Cell-O Corporation – 1979

March 05, 2024
Micheal James

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Butler Machine Tool Co Ltd v Ex-Cell-O Corp (England) Ltd [1979] 1 WLR 401 is a leading English contract law case concerning the formation of contracts when both parties use standard terms and conditions with conflicting terms. This “battle of the forms” case centered around the sale of a machine tool and the price variation clause included in one party’s terms.

Facts of the Case

  • The Offer: Butler Machine Tool offered to sell a machine tool to Ex-Cell-O Corporation for £75,535, with delivery in 10 months. Their standard terms included a price variation clause allowing them to adjust the price based on costs at the delivery date.
  • The Counter-Offer: Ex-Cell-O submitted a purchase order incorporating their own standard terms, which did not include the price variation clause. Their order also included an acknowledgment slip requiring Butler’s signature, stating that the contract would be subject to the terms stated overleaf (Ex-Cell-O’s terms).
  • Acceptance: Butler signed and returned the acknowledgment slip but also sent a letter stating that the order was accepted “in accordance with” their own terms.

Legal Issue

The central legal question was: Which set of terms governed the contract?

  • Did Butler’s initial offer, with the price variation clause, form the binding contract?
  • Or did Ex-Cell-O’s counter-offer, excluding the clause, prevail due to Butler’s signed acknowledgment?
  1. Arguments of the Parties
  • Butler:

Argued their initial offer constituted the contract, with their terms applying.

Claimed Ex-Cell-O’s acknowledgment slip only confirmed receipt of the order, not acceptance of their terms.

  • Ex-Cell-O:

Contended their counter-offer, excluding the price variation clause, became the binding contract.

Argued Butler’s signed acknowledgment confirmed acceptance of their terms.

Judgment and Rationale

The Court of Appeal held in favor of Ex-Cell-O. Their reasoning:

  • Butler’s initial offer was destroyed by Ex-Cell-O’s counter-offer, which introduced new terms (excluding the price variation clause).
  • Butler’s signature on the acknowledgment slip, despite the accompanying letter, constituted acceptance of Ex-Cell-O’s terms.
  • The court applied the traditional “mirror image” approach, requiring a final offer and corresponding acceptance for a contract to form.

Impact of the Case

Butler v Ex-Cell-O clarified the rules governing “battle of forms” situations in English contract law:

  • Highlighted the importance of clear and unambiguous communication in contract formation.
  • Emphasized the significance of the “last shot fired” rule, where the final document sent and accepted without objection determines the terms.
  • Influenced subsequent legislation and contractual practices regarding standard terms and offer/counter-offer processes.


Butler v Ex-Cell-O serves as a reminder of the complexities involved in contracts using differing standard terms. The case underscores the importance of careful drafting, clear communication, and understanding the legal implications of signed documents to avoid unintended consequences.

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All Answers ltd, 'Butler Machine Tool v Ex-Cell-O Corporation – 1979' (Mylawtutor.net, September 2012 ) <https://www.mylawtutor.net/cases/butler-machine-tool-v-ex-cell-o-corporation-1979> accessed 26 May 2024
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"Butler Machine Tool v Ex-Cell-O Corporation – 1979." MyLawTutor.net. 9 2012. All Answers Ltd. 05 2024 <https://www.mylawtutor.net/cases/butler-machine-tool-v-ex-cell-o-corporation-1979>.
"Butler Machine Tool v Ex-Cell-O Corporation – 1979." MyLawTutor. MyLawTutor.net, September 2012. Web. 26 May 2024. <https://www.mylawtutor.net/cases/butler-machine-tool-v-ex-cell-o-corporation-1979>.
MyLawTutor. September 2012. Butler Machine Tool v Ex-Cell-O Corporation – 1979. [online]. Available from: https://www.mylawtutor.net/cases/butler-machine-tool-v-ex-cell-o-corporation-1979 [Accessed 26 May 2024].
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