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Webb v. McGowin

    Brief Fact Summary. P brings suit against D for payments that D promised to P after P suffered serious bodily harm in preventing a block from falling on D.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A moral obligation is a sufficient consideration to support a subsequent promise to pay where the promisor has received a material benefit.

    Facts. Webb (P), acting within the scope of his employment, was engaged in clearing the upper floor of a mill.  P was in the act of dropping a 75-pound block to the ground below when he saw McGowin directly underneath the block.  If P had dropped the block, McGowin would have suffered serious bodily harm or death.  P could have remained safe on the upper floor of the mill by dropping the block.  However, the only way to prevent the block from hitting McGowin was for P to fall with the block and divert its direction.  P fell with the block and diverted its direction in such a way the McGowin was not injured.  In doing so, P suffered seriously bodily injuries.  P was badly crippled for life and unable to do physical or mental labor.  McGowin promised to pay P $15 every two weeks for the rest of P's life.  McGowin followed through with the payments until his death eight years later.  After McGowin's death the payments stopped.  P sued McGowin’s estate (D).  D obtained a nonsuit.  P appealed.

    Issue. If a promisee cares for, improves, and preserves the property of the promisor, though done without his request, is it a sufficient consideration for the promisor's subsequent agreement to pay for the service because of the material benefit received?

    Held. Yes.  Case is reversed and remanded.
    •    Life and preservation of the body have material, pecuniary values, measurable in dollars and cents. 
    •    A moral obligation is a sufficient consideration to support a subsequent promise to pay where the promisor has received a material benefit, although there was no original duty or liability resting on the promisor.
    •    Here the court distinguishes this case from other cases where the consideration is a mere moral obligation.  In this case, the court found that the promisor, McGowin, received a material benefit constituting a valid consideration for his promise.

    Concurrence. The law should reflect justice.

    Discussion. Generally, past consideration could not be consideration.  Here the court makes an exception to the general rule for a type of moral obligation.  However, the moral obligation does not fit into the requirement of bargained-for exchange.

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