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Cohen v. Cowles Media Co

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Contracts Keyed to Murphy

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Bloomberg Law

Citation. 22 Ill. 501 U.S. 663, 111 S. Ct. 2513, 115 L. Ed. 2d 586, 18 Med. L. Rptr. 2273 (1991)

Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Cowles Media Co. (Defendant), promised the Plaintiff, Cohen (Plaintiff), confidentiality in order to receive certain information to be published. Defendant failed to adhere to the agreement and as a result the Plaintiff lost his employment and received a damage award by the trial court.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Compensatory damages are a proper remedy to avoid the injustice under a promissory estoppel claim.

Facts. A newspaper owned by Defendant published a story reporting that a nominee for Lieutenant Governor had been charged with three counts of unlawful assembly and previously convicted of shoplifting. The newspapers revealed Plaintiff as the source and named the firm he worked for. It is undisputed that Plaintiff gave this information in return for the reporters’ promises to keep his identity secret. As a result Plaintiff was fired.
The case was submitted to the jury on the theory of breach of contract and misrepresentation. The jury found liability on both counts and awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages against each newspaper for misrepresentation. The Court of Appeals set aside the misrepresentation damages, but affirmed the compensatory damages.
The State Supreme Court affirmed the setting aside of punitive damages. Also, decided that the compensatory damages were not enforceable under standard breach of contracts theory. (Parties had not intended to assume legal obligation.) The award could be enforced under the theory of reliance, but that such a decision would intrude into the newspaper’s first Amendment rights.
The United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) held that the doctrine of promissory estoppel does not implicate the First Amendment.

Issue. Is the award sustainable under the theory of promissory estoppel?

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