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Webb v. McGowin

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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.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

We think that, in conformity to the great weight of authority, the rule in this state is, a moral obligation is not a sufficient consideration to support an executory express promise, unless there has been an antecedent legal liability, which has become suspended or barred by operation of some positive rule of law, which extinguished the remedy but not the debt, or where the promisee has suffered some detriment in reliance upon the promise, or where the promisor has received an actual pecuniary or material benefit for which he subsequently expressly promised to pay.

View Full Point of Law
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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