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English skills at core of fraud case
High court says jury should decide Eat-A-Burger suit

Bringing along an interpreter when negotiating or signing a business contract with someone who is not proficient in the English language might be a good idea.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled last week that in claims of fraud, a party's literacy and language proficiency are material facts.The ruling came in a case where Russian immigrant George Semenov purchased a downtown Eat-A-Burger restaurant and claimed his poor English skills prevented him from understanding the terms of the purchase contract and that the seller misrepresented facts about the business.

In a lawsuit filed in 3rd District Court, Semenov said he agreed in October 1994 to buy the fast-food restaurant from Hill Daw Inc. under terms of a standard two-page real estate contract. When closing on the deal two weeks later, however, he said he was presented with a 20-page contract.

Semenov claimed he didn't have the English skills to understand the lengthy contract but was pressured into "trusting" Hill and signing the agreement anyway. After signing the agreement, however, he said he learned the agreement stated the business was losing money, when Hill allegedly told him earlier that the business was profitable.

Semenov claimed in his lawsuit that had he been able to understand and read the contract, he would not have purchased the restaurant. But because he was not proficient in English, he trusted statements made by Hill.

A district court judge dismissed Semenov's lawsuit, ruling the purchase contract was binding and that his language skills were sufficient to understand the transaction. But the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the district court for trial, ruling that whether Semenov's English skills were adequate to understand the contract is a disputed question that a jury should decide.