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Yes, its a strange question. But I am curious. Yesterday, I was very busy at work and needed to eat lunch fast. I drove to a local fast food restaurant and ordered some food from the drive through lane. The line was taking forever and I was just sitting there waiting for it to move for 20 minutes before I decided to leave. Ive done this before and have seen many other do this as well, many times. This got me wondering, what if they started cooking the food? Is there any legal obligation for the customer to pay at this point? Obviously, I have never heard of this being an issue before. Im in the US, but any input would be interesting to hear.

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  • @NateEldredge I am editing my question, I dont think I was clear. I am talking about from a drive through lane.
    – Keltari
    Commented May 22 at 12:59
  • "The line was taking forever and I was just sitting there waiting for it to move for 20 minutes before I decided to leave. Ive done this before and have seen many other do this as well, many times." Honestly, the more interesting question, which doesn't have as clear of a legal answer, is what the legal implications are if you get in a drive though lane, are stuck there for a long time, and can't physically leave the drive though lane, and suffer some negative consequence as a result of the delay (e.g. can't get prompt medical help as a result when you are in labor or are shot).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 22 at 14:27

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A contract for the sale of the goods ordered is created when you order fast food from a drive through lane. It is governed in the United States primarily by Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code, which is a model state law that has been adopted in every U.S. state and territory.

In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the default rule in a contract for the sale of goods, which includes purchases of fast food, is that the goods must be delivered within a "reasonable time". The relevant section of Article 2 states (subject to different statute numbering from one jurisdiction adopting it to another; emphasis added):

§ 2-309. Absence of Specific Time Provisions; Notice of Termination.

(1) The time for shipment or delivery or any other action under a contract if not provided in this Article or agreed upon shall be a reasonable time.

(2) Where the contract provides for successive performances but is indefinite in duration it is valid for a reasonable time but unless otherwise agreed may be terminated at any time by either party.

(3) Termination of a contract by one party except on the happening of an agreed event requires that reasonable notification be received by the other party and an agreement dispensing with notification is invalid if its operation would be unconscionable.

There is also an official commentary to every section of the Uniform Commercial Code, which as a practical matter has the force of law, that could provide additional guidance in interpreting it. This Official Comment to Uniform Commercial Code § 2-309 says (emphasis added):

Official Comment

  1. Subsection (1) requires that all actions taken under a sales contract must be taken within a reasonable time where no time has been agreed upon. The reasonable time under this provision turns on the criteria as to "reasonable time" and on good faith and commercial standards set forth in Sections 1-203, 1-204 and 2-103. It thus depends upon what constitutes acceptable commercial conduct in view of the nature, purpose and circumstances of the action to be taken. Agreement as to a definite time, however, may be found in a term implied from the contractual circumstances, usage of trade or course of dealing or performance as well as in an express term. Such cases fall outside of this subsection since in them the time for action is "agreed" by usage.

  2. The time for payment, where not agreed upon, is related to the time for delivery; the particular problems which arise in connection with determining the appropriate time of payment and the time for any inspection before payment which is both allowed by law and demanded by the buyer are covered in Section 2-513.

  3. The facts in regard to shipment and delivery differ so widely as to make detailed provision for them in the text of this Article impracticable. The applicable principles, however, make it clear that surprise is to be avoided, good faith judgment is to be protected, and notice or negotiation to reduce the uncertainty to certainty is to be favored.

  4. When the time for delivery is left open, unreasonably early offers of or demands for delivery are intended to be read under this Article as expressions of desire or intention, requesting the assent or acquiescence of the other party, not as final positions which may amount without more to breach or to create breach by the other side. See Sections 2-207 and 2-609.

  5. The obligation of good faith under this Act requires reasonable notification before a contract may be treated as breached because a reasonable time for delivery or demand has expired. This operates both in the case of a contract originally indefinite as to time and of one subsequently made indefinite by waiver. When both parties let an originally reasonable time go by in silence, the course of conduct under the contract may be viewed as enlarging the reasonable time for tender or demand of performance. The contract may be terminated by abandonment.

  6. Parties to a contract are not required in giving reasonable notification to fix, at peril of breach, a time which is in fact reasonable in the unforeseeable judgment of a later trier of fact. Effective communication of a proposed time limit calls for a response, so that failure to reply will make out acquiescence. Where objection is made, however, or if the demand is merely for information as to when goods will be delivered or will be ordered out, demand for assurances on the ground of insecurity may be made under this Article pending further negotiations. Only when a party insists on undue delay or on rejection of the other party's reasonable proposal is there a question of flat breach under the present section.

  7. Subsection (2) applies a commercially reasonable view to resolve the conflict which has arisen in the cases as to contracts of indefinite duration. The "reasonable time" of duration appropriate to a given arrangement is limited by the circumstances. When the arrangement has been carried on by the parties over the years, the "reasonable time" can continue indefinitely and the contract will not terminate until notice.

  8. Subsection (3) recognizes that the application of principles of good faith and sound commercial practice normally call for such notification of the termination of a going contract relationship as will give the other party reasonable time to seek a substitute arrangement. An agreement dispensing with notification or limiting the time for the seeking of a substitute arrangement is, of course, valid under this subsection unless the results of putting it into operation would be the creation of an unconscionable state of affairs.

  9. Justifiable cancellation for breach is a remedy for breach and is not the kind of termination covered by the present subsection.

  10. The requirement of notification is dispensed with where the contract provides for termination on the happening of an "agreed event." "Event" is a term chosen here to contrast with "option" or the like.

In theory, if you leave the line without paying before a "reasonable time" has elapsed, the restaurant could sue you for the purchase price. U.C.C. § 2-709. The restaurant also has the right to resell the food that you ordered and abandoned to a different customer. U.C.C. § 2-706.

In practice, a fast food restaurant will just throw the food away if it doesn't resell it to someone else in the same line, because it wouldn't be economical or a good marketing move to sue (often they don't even know the name of the person who made the order). But because fast food restaurants virtually never sue, and even less often appeal to create an appellate precedent over a single meal purchase. So, there is little or no case law concerning what constitutes a "reasonable time" in this context.

But as my Uniform Commercial Code professor, James J. White, who is the lead author of the leading legal treatise on the Uniform Commercial Code, used to say when I was in law school: all legal issues are interesting and worth litigating if you add enough zeros to the amount in controversy.

If you had pre-ordered 10,000 fast food meals for everyone at a major business convention, the question of what a reasonable time was would become very interesting and would be worth litigating, and you could resort to precedents from higher stakes contract disputes to provide the court with guidance on the issue.

The question of what constitutes a "reasonable time", however, would usually be decided as a non-precedent creating finding of fact rather than being resolved by the judge as a question of law that can be reviewed de novo on appeal. So, any appellate court would be required to defer to a trial court's conclusion about what constitutes a reasonable time, unless that conclusion is not supported by any evidence in the trial court record or the trial court recited and applied an incorrect definition of "reasonable time" in its ruling or jury instructions.

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  • interesting. so much of the law is ambiguous until someone or multiple someones actually sue and rulings are made.
    – Keltari
    Commented May 22 at 17:17
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    @Keltari That is correct and it is by design. Basically, our legal system has decided that it is too difficult to foresee every possible situation and decide how it should come out in advance and has instead delegated responsibility to met out justice to judges and juries on a case by case basis.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 22 at 18:55
  • @Tak Saying so without explaining why and providing a basis for your statement is meaningless.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 22 at 20:43
  • @ohwilleke to be sure, you think there is no set time for a restaurant to give you your food?
    – Tak
    Commented May 22 at 20:44
  • @Tak The relevant statute and official commentary are literally right there in the question. The answer is "a reasonable time" and there is no bright line cutoff. It is determined on a case by case basis by judges and juries in litigated cases. The fact that there is no specific "set time" doesn't mean that it can't be late, it just means that there is no arbitrary rule on this point, it is legal standard and not a legal rule. See link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/…).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 22 at 21:05

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