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Settling an Unliquidated Debt

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

An unliquidated debt is one that is uncertain in amount. Such debts frequently occur when people consult professionals in whose offices precise fees are rarely discussed, or where one party agrees, expressly or by implication, to pay the customary or reasonable fees of the other without fixing the exact amount. It is certain that a debt is owed, but it is not certain how much. (A liquidated debt, on the other hand, is one that is fixed in amount, certain. A debt can be liquidated by being written down in unambiguous terms—“IOU $100”—or by being mathematically ascertainable—$1 per pound of ice ordered and 60 pounds delivered; hence the liquidated debt is $60.)

Here is how the matter plays out: Assume a patient goes to the hospital for a gallbladder operation. The cost of the operation has not been discussed beforehand in detail, although the cost in the metropolitan area is normally around $8,000. After the operation, the patient and the surgeon agree on a bill of $6,000. The patient pays the bill; a month later the surgeon sues for another $2,000. Who wins? The patient: he has forgone his right to challenge the reasonableness of the fee by agreeing to a fixed amount payable at a certain time. The agreement liquidating the debt is an accord and is enforceable. If, however, the patient and the surgeon had agreed on an $8,000 fee before the operation, and if the patient arbitrarily refused to pay this liquidated debt unless the surgeon agreed to cut her fee in half, then the surgeon would be entitled to recover the other half in a lawsuit, because the patient would have given no consideration—given up nothing, “suffered no detriment”—for the surgeon’s subsequent agreement to cut the fee.