I signed a contract in Spanish!
January 17, 2008 9:21 PM   Subscribe

Am I bound by the terms of a contract that I signed if that contract was written in Spanish? I'm in California and a native English speaker.

It's embarrassing to admit, but I didn't read all of my car lease paperwork, and it turns out that the contract itself is written entirely in Spanish. I was in a hurry, and signed on the dotted line without more than a quick check that the payment schedule and buyout amount matched what was negotiated. Now it's time to return the car, and I'm just reading for the first time what I signed.

I believe that the car dealer acted in good faith and simply put the wrong form into the printer (all of the other paperwork is in English). I'm not trying to get out of anything, exactly. I'm more curious about what kind of negotiation power I have if they try charge me for excess wear on the car. E.g. "Those scratches are very minor. I'll do what it says under the 'Responsabilidad por terminacion convenida' and let's call it even."

As I said, this is in California. I know you're not my lawyer, and I should consult with one if it gets to that. To emphasize - I don't speak Spanish and would not be mistaken for someone who does (by name, appearance or accent). I believe it was an honest mistake.

For extra credit: My obligations are in the fine print on the back side of the form. Presumably it says somewhere on the front that the terms are continued on the back, but I don't see that text anywhere and I signed on the front without ever turning it over (obviously). Does this change anything?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (12 answers total)
I am a lawyer.(*)

There's a principal called Non Est Factum, which says you can get out of a contract if it was signed by mistake, without knowledge of its meaning, but was not done so negligently. In your case, well, I'd say that failing to notice that the contract was in Spanish would be considered negligent. It's your job to look at the contract.

If you said to the guy "Hey this is in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish. What does it say?", and he deliberately misled you, then I think you'd have a case.

I think a common analogous example is contract signed (with an X I guess) by people who are illiterate. The legal position, I believe, is that the fact that you can't read doesn't exempt you from accountability for contracts. Rather, it means it's your job to make sure you get someone reliable to tell you what the contract says. When you sign, your X is as binding as anyone's signature, whether you understood the contract or not. (link: scroll down to "illiteracy). Your position as a Spanish non-reader seems pretty similar to an illiterate person's position as an everything non-reader.

(*)Actually, I just loooked all this stuff up on Google. I am not a lawyer. Sue me.
posted by ManInSuit at 9:45 PM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Interesting question. There are doctrines that cut both way on this one -- people are bound to things they didn't read on forms all the time, yet the contract being in Spanish seems to preclude a true meeting of the minds. If I was in Vegas, I'd put money on the essential terms of the contract being enforced, but Spanish boilerplate terms not being enforced.

Although you may want to swing by the dealership and get a copy of those terms in English, because there's another common doctrine that you don't want applied to your case: the consumer getting screwed.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:58 PM on January 17, 2008

I signed my contract for employment in Japanese and it's completely binding. All I know.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 9:59 PM on January 17, 2008

I signed my contract for employment in Japanese and it's completely binding. All I know.

Different countries have different laws.
posted by delmoi at 10:08 PM on January 17, 2008

Ya-huh, I know that delmoi. Can you point to U.S. law that suggests claiming you shouldn't "be able" to speak another language frees you of the duties within a contract you which you willingly signed your name?

A document is binding regardless of the language, and I would presume, regardless of what language you speak or claim to speak.

Using the argument of "well do I LOOK like I speak Spanish?!?" to try and back out of something you signed your name to doesn't sound like it would work very well to me.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 10:22 PM on January 17, 2008

I am a lawyer not a pretend one.

To answer this question, you need a real lawyer, who looks at your real case. Case in point--you are told that a legal doctrine applies to you based on a wikipedia entry. However, the wikipedia entry in question says: "Non est factum is difficult to claim as it does not allow for negligence on the part of the signatory. i.e. failure to read a contract before signing it will not allow for non est factum."

The words in your question indicate that you never read the contract.

Don't bet the farm on anything other than the advice of a real lawyer you are actually paying to actually look at the real documents and facts of your case. Remember, its your life you are dealing with.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:42 PM on January 17, 2008

Call them, say you lost your contract and could they send you another? See whether you get the English terms this time.
posted by dhartung at 12:45 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bravo/a, dhartung. That's thinking outside the box. You can be proud. Practicality (just get an English contract from the same people) instead of sneaking around plotting whether you can get away with stuff.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:59 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if it's a standard contract, just get an English blank from them. If you tell them to send you the contract, they send you a photocopy of the original, Spanish version. Make sure you get it in English.
posted by Doohickie at 6:23 AM on January 18, 2008

Ironmouth: I didn't say the doctrine applies. I said it doesn't apply. For the reasons you state.

(*)I continue to not be a lawyer, and to think lawyers are useful, but also to think that regular citizens can do useful research too (and that lawyers sometimes don't read things so carefully).
posted by ManInSuit at 9:19 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Am I correct in understanding that you might not need to contest this contract? If so, just get yourself an English copy of the contract (from the dealer, if possible, or otherwise have your Spanish copy translated.)

If you need to contest the contract, seek competent counsel to advise you on the matter of your Spanish contract. I would be astonished to learn that the onus is on the dealer to make sure that you understand the language of the contract you're signing.

IANALBIPOOTIATTAISLIHS. (I am not a lawyer, but I play one on the Internet all the time and I studied law in high school!)
posted by Count Ziggurat at 9:47 AM on January 18, 2008

Perhaps of interest: Our office brought a 42 U.S.C. section 1981 claim against Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. because they had a policy of rejecting life insurance applicants whom it deemed not sufficiently proficient in English (presumably out of fears that the signatories would later claim lack of understanding of the English language in the contract). The settlement provides access to insurance products for the most commonly spoken non-English languages in the US.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:58 AM on January 19, 2008

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