Contract Disputes Are An Ancient Problem

Written by Neil Juneja, Attorney at Gleam Law PLLC.

What will your legacy be? In Ozymandias Percy Shelley wrote of a massive, shattered statue alone in the desert, all but forgotten and marked with the words, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The sentiment is poignant: what we do in life, no matter how great, will likely be forgotten.

Great warriors, leaders, and innovative thinkers are often remembered, and just as often reviled; sometimes what we do in life echoes into eternity, for better or worse. We remember heroism, betrayal, overcoming adversity, and, occasionally, contract disputes.

Ea-nasir was a merchant who would travel to the Persian Gulf to buy copper and return to sell it in Mesopotamia. Around 1750 BCE, it appears he breached his contract with Nanni, a very dissatisfied customer who did what dissatisfied customers have done for millenia; Nani wrote a complaint letter (on a clay tablet). The letter, which is the oldest known complaint letter, reads:

Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

Leo Oppenheim, Letters from Mesopotamia

It’s tempting to want to think poorly of Ea-nasir, but we’ve all seen a single bad review of a restaurant and thought, “That customer seems to be overreacting.” Perhaps this is Ea-nasir’s only one-star review, forever tainting his name and memory?

It actually appears that this was merely one of many complaints sent to Ea-nasir and it further appears that he may have gone out of his way to preserve them in his home, giving us access to them today. Whether he saved them for possible litigation or as trophies of angering his customers and partners is lost in the sands of time, but Ea-nasir’s legacy is to forever be remembered as a subpar merchant with a penchant for trying to pass off low-grade copper.

While the statute of limitations may have run on Nanni’s claim against Ea-nasir, your own contract disputes may still be reddressable. While it may be tempting to set your complaint in stone for future generations, good legal representation can ensure that you end up where you ought to be. On the other side of the tablet, none of us want to think of ourselves as an Ea-nasir and your lawyer can help make sure that any contracts you enter into are clear, fair, and cleanly taken care of should problems arise.