Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bailey v. West, quasi contract, and the "mere volunteer"

In Bailey v. West, 105 R.I. 61, 249 A.2d 414 (R.I. 1969), the court ruled that the defendant-owner of a horse was not obligated to pay the plaintiff -- the owner of a horse farm -- for 4 years of costs incurred by the plaintiff in boarding and caring for the defendant's horse. The court first held that there was no contract between the plaintiff and the defendant obligating the defendant to pay the plaintiff for caring for the horse. In also denying the plaintiff's claim under a theory of quasi-contract based on the defendant's unjust enrichment, the court reasoned that" the plaintiff was a mere volunteer who boarded and maintained [the horse] at his own risk and with full knowledge that he might not be reimbursed for expenses he incurred . . . ." Id. at 418, 248 A.2d at 418 (emphasis added). In reaching this conclusion, the court relied on the Restatement of Restitution, § 2 (1937), which states that a "person is not required to deal with another unless he so desires and, ordinarily, a person should not be required to become an obligor unless he so desires."

Is it in fact true that anyone who provides a benefit to another as a "mere volunteer" -- where the beneficiary has expressed no desire for the benefit -- is never entitled to recover for unjust enrichment?

That conclusion might often be true but it is difficult to support as a universal principle. First, as the court in Bailey pointed out:
In quasi contracts the obligation arises, not from consent of the parties, as in the case of contracts, express or implied in fact, but from the law of natural immutable justice and equity. The act, or acts, from which the law implies the contract must, however, be voluntary. Where a case shows that it is the duty of the defendant to pay, the law imputes to him a promise to fulfill that obligation. The duty, which thus forms the foundation of a quasi-contractual obligation, is frequently based on the doctrine of unjust enrichment. Bailey, 105 R.I. at 67, 249 A.2d at 416 (emphasis added).
Furthermore, comment a to the Restatement of the Law, Restitution, § 1, states:
A person confers a benefit upon another if he . . . performs services beneficial to . . . or in any way adds to the other's . . . advantage. He confers a benefit not only where he adds to the property of another, but also where he saves the other from expense or loss. The word "benefit," therefore, denotes any form of advantage. The advantage for which a person ordinarily must pay is pecuniary advantage; it is not, however, necessarily so limited, as where a physician attends an insensible person who is saved subsequent pain or who receives thereby a greater chance of living. (emphasis added)
And comment b to Restatement of the Law, Restitution, § 12 states:
Under some conditions, it is desirable to encourage persons to interfere with the affairs of others. Thus where it is imperatively necessary for the protection of the interests of third persons or of the public that a duty owed by another should be performed, a stranger who performs it may be entitled to restitution from the other, even though his performance was without the other's knowledge or against his will. Furthermore, a person or his belongings may be in such jeopardy that a stranger is privileged to intervene and to recover for his salvage services. (emphasis added)
So is it really a sufficient explanation of the court's decision not to grant the plaintiff the costs of maintaining the health of the defendant's horse for four years to describe the plaintiff as a "mere volunteer" and leave the explanation of the result in the case at that?

Or is there another, and perhaps even more convincing reason, to explain why the plaintiff in Bailey was not entitled to recover the costs of maintaining the value of the defendant's horse?

And don't forget that the quasi-contractual theory of unjust enrichment was only one basis for the plaintiff's claim for payment. Why was there no contract between the plaintiff and the defendant?

10 comments:

  1. The plaintiff had knowledge of the dispute over ownership of the horse. Therefore, he could not believe he had a contract "implied in fact" because without knowledge of the owner one has no knowledge of whom they have a contract.

    R.Shefferly

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  2. Perhaps Ms. Shefferly is right about Bailey's claim based on an contract between Bailey and West, but the court's statement regarding Bailey being a "mere volunteer" pertained to Bailey's claimed right to recover, not pursuant to a contract, but in quasi-contract for unjust enrichment. Thus, that statement by the court had nothing to do with the claim by Bailey there had been a contract.

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  3. Can I say that the defendant actually didn't get any unjust enrichment? So no quasi-contract? When we talk about the quasi-contract, the third party has to get any sort of advantage. However, plaintiff's caring the horse was not beneficial to the defendant because there was an ownership dispute. The defendant clearly showed that he didn't want the horse by sending it back to the original owner and also, by writing against the bills from the plaintiff. Without getting this ownership dispute resolved, we can not say that the plaintiff's caring the horse was beneficial to defendant who was not the owner. Therefore, no unjust enrichment, no quasi-contract.

    Yosef Hyunseong Lee

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  4. Yosef - you may be right that West did not obtain a benefit, but I'm not convinced it's because West denied he owned the horse. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island determined that West was the owner (in other words, that Strauss had delivered Bascom's Folly to West in a condition that did not breach the terms of the contract of sale between Strauss and West).

    In short, West owned Bascom's Folly, a piece of property with value. Bailey spent money to maintain the value of West's property. Isn't that a benefit to West?

    A couple of points here:

    (1) Like it or not, animals are considered personal property under the law of, I believe, every state. There are, of course, also laws in every state that impose civil and criminal liability to animals.

    (2)Notice that the legal determination of West's ownership is mentioned in the course of the opinion without highlighting at all its significance to our understanding of the case. If I'd been writing an explanation of the case for the class, I would have emphasized -- immediately after explaining that West had refused delivery of Bascom's Folly and Strauss had refused to take the horse back -- that the resulting dispute had evolved in a lawsuit that determined as a matter of law that West was the owner.

    (3) I emphasize this point about how easy it is to miss that West is in fact the owner (despite his arguments otherwise) as part of my emphasis on how legal opinions do not explain themselves in any easy way for students (and lawyers!) to understand. It would be nice if a courts wrote opinions with sections laid out like this (1) all the material facts, (2) the results, (3) all the reasons that can support the result. But that's not the way opinions are written. They could be. I would write them that way if I were ever a judge. So what is important to your understanding of a case may be buried somewhere in the opinion. It may not even be in the opinion, but, instead, an inference you draw from something that was done or written by the court (or even by something that wasn't done or written by the court).

    In short, judicial opinions are like a box full of jigsaw puzzles that you have to put together. But it's even harder -- there is no single right way to piece the puzzle together. There may be more convincing ways and less convincing ways, but there rarely is one single convincing way.

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  5. I meant, of course, that every state has laws that impose criminal and civil liability for cruelty to animals.

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  6. Anjela Freeman8/22/09, 8:19 PM

    Could perhaps the more convincing reason as to why the plaintiff was not entitled to recover the cost of maintaining the value of the defendant’s horse under the quasi-contractual theory of unjust enrichment be because it was the Plaintiff who received the proceeds from the sale of “Bascom’s Folly” when it was eventually sold to a third party on July 3, 1966? And the cost of maintaining the horse’s value cannot exceed its value; therefore, the Plaintiff has received all compensation to which he is entitled?

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  7. Amanda Vintevoghel8/23/09, 2:42 PM

    I am curious as to why then, if the horse's owner is West as mentioned above, did the Plaintiff have a right to sell Bascom's Folly? The Plaintiff continued to claim the horse was not his and wanted payments for its care, but yet was able to accept the proceeds like Anjela states from its sale. To me, that sounds like he accepted the horse as his own, which would not make West liable for payments.

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  8. The same thought that Anjela mentioned crossed my mind when reading the case. If the Plaintiff sold the horse did he ever intent to give the money to the owner? If he did not then wouldn't selling the horse be valuable and therefore not unjust enrichment? And by selling the horse didn't he claim ownership like Amanda said. One more thought if I were to take care of a horse, I believe, I would tell them my price when they left the horse to me, otherwise, I may think they were just giving me the horse. Therefore, could transfer of ownership actually occur when the horse was dropped off with the Plaintiff?

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  9. I was the previous post I do not know how to add my name, still working on that. Any thoughts? I do not have a google account.

    Diana Ray

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  10. I think if Bailey knew who Boscom Folly's owner was, he would have approached the owner before selling the horse to a 3rd party. Bailey wanted to approach the owner for the money to board the horse, but not for the matters of selling the horse to a 3rd party - so he only wanted to recover fees for boarding, but didn't really think about the contract involved with selling it to a third party...?

    Jessica Pospiech

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