Martin v. Little, Brown & Co.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania, 1981.

304 Pa.Super. 424, 450 A.2d 984.

Dawson, pp. 223-226


Facts: The plaintiff sent a letter to the defendant telling them that one of their books had been plagiarized.  When the defendant sued the third party infringer, the plaintiff demanded compensation for his help.  The defendant sent him $200, but he sued for one-third of the defendant’s recovery in the infringement suit and for intentional infliction of mental distress based on the company’s threat to countersue him.  The trial court ruled that there had been no contract made and that the plaintiff could not recover for quantum meruit because he had acted as a “volunteer”.  The trial court dismissed the intentional infliction of mental distress claim.


Issue: Does the law require the defendant to make restitution for the benefit conferred by the plaintiff even though it was not asked for (either on a contract or quasi-contract theory)?[1]


Rule: In order to construe an implied contract from a course of conduct between two parties, an intention to pay on the part of the alleged promisee must be reasonably inferable[2].  In the absence of a contract, restitution is only available when someone has been “unjustly enriched at the expense of another”.[3]  Volunteers generally have no right to restitution.


Analysis: The court can find nothing in the course of conduct between the parties (namely, their letters back and forth) that suggests that the plaintiff demanded money or that the defendant expressed a willingness or expectation to pay for the plaintiff’s service.  Therefore, the court rules that there was no contract in this case.


Furthermore, the court finds that the plaintiff was a volunteer.  Therefore, the defendant book company may have been enriched, but not unjustly.  The plaintiff’s benefit was given more in the nature of a gift.


Finally, the court says that the threat of a counterclaim cannot be construed as intentional infliction of mental distress because, among other reasons, the plaintiff took advantage of the legal system too and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.


Conclusion: The court upholds the trial court’s decision to dismiss the complaint in full.


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[1] See FARNSWORTH ON CONTRACTS §2.20 at 173 (1998).

[2] Quick example: when you walk into a barber shop and say “a little off the top, please”, it is implied, though not stated, that you’re going to pay for the work that will be done, even though there is no explicit contract or promise.  If you run out of the barber shop without paying (or out of a restaurant, for another example) the barber can probably sue to get restitution for quantum meruit, in particular, the value of the haircut.

[3] See Restatement of Restitution §1 (1937) and FARNSWORTH ON CONTRACTS § 2.20 at 172 (1998).