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Webb v. McGowin

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Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiff, Webb (Plaintiff), in trying to save the Defendant, McGowin’s (Defendant) life, seriously injured himself. Defendant promised to pay Plaintiff a stipend for life and later ceases payment. Plaintiff sued to enforce the promise.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The material benefit rule dictates that 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.

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.

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Facts. Plaintiff was clearing a floor for a lumber company and dropping pine blocks onto the floor below. As he was about to drop one block, he noticed Defendant was in the trajectory and instead, clung to the block to keep it from hitting Defendant. As a result of the fall, Plaintiff was crippled. Defendant agreed as a result, to pay Plaintiff a biweekly stipend of $15 for the remainder of Plaintiff’s life. Defendant died and now Plaintiff is suing his estate to recover the stipend since the time of Defendant’s death.

Issue. If a promisee cares for, improves, or preserves the property of the promisor, though done without his request, is it sufficient consideration for the promisor’s subsequent agreement to pay for the service?

Held. Yes. Reversed.
For a moral obligation to support a subsequent promise to pay, there must have existed a prior legal or equitable obligation, which for some reason had become unenforceable, but for which the promisor was still morally bound. This rule is subject to qualification. There are cases where subsequent promise is an affirmance of the services rendered presuming a previous request was made.
Because Plaintiff was injured this was part of the consideration and Plaintiff’s actions were not gratuitous.
Concurrence. This case does not follow the strict letter of law. But, as Holmes says “I do not think that law ought to be separated from justice, where it is at most doubtful.”

Discussion. The court considers the material benefit rule and finds that the saving of the defendant’s life was a material benefit. This combined with the promise to pay, results in consideration and an enforceable contract.

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