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Promissory Estoppel

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

We examined the meaning of this forbidding phrase in Introduction to Contract Law (recall the English High Trees case). It represents another type of promise that the courts will enforce without consideration. Simply stated,promissory estoppel means that the courts will stop the promisor from claiming that there was no consideration. The doctrine of promissory estoppel is invoked in the interests of justice when three conditions are met: (1) the promise is one that the promisor should reasonably expect to induce the promisee to take action or forbear from taking action of a definite and substantial character; (2) the action or forbearance is taken; and (3) injustice can be avoided only by enforcing the promise. (The complete phraseology is “promissory estoppel with detrimental reliance.”)

Timko served on the board of trustees of a school. He recommended that the school purchase a building for a substantial sum of money, and to induce the trustees to vote for the purchase, he promised to help with the purchase and to pay at the end of five years the purchase price less the down payment. At the end of four years, Timko died. The school sued his estate, which defended on the ground that there was no consideration for the promise. Timko was promised or given nothing in return, and the purchase of the building was of no direct benefit to him (which would have made the promise enforceable as a unilateral contract). The court ruled that under the three-pronged promissory estoppel test, Timko’s estate was liable. 1

Cases involving pledges of charitable contributions have long been troublesome to courts. Recognizing the necessity to charitable institutions of such pledges, the courts have also been mindful that a mere pledge of money to the general funds of a hospital, university, or similar institution does not usually induce substantial action but is, rather, simply a promise without consideration. When the pledge does prompt a charitable institution to act, promissory estoppel is available as a remedy. In about one-quarter of the states, another doctrine is available for cases involving simple pledges: the “mutual promises” theory, whereby the pledges of many individuals are taken as consideration for each other and are binding against each promisor. This theory was not available to the plaintiff in Timkobecause his was the only promise.