You are here

By Operation of Law

15 January, 2016 - 09:35

Aside from the express termination (by agreement of both or upon the insistence of one), or the necessary or reasonable inferences that can be drawn from their agreements, the law voids agencies under certain circumstances. The most frequent termination by operation of law is the death of a principal or an agent. The death of an agent also terminates the authority of subagents he has appointed, unless the principal has expressly consented to the continuing validity of their appointment. Similarly, if the agent or principal loses capacity to enter into an agency relationship, it is suspended or terminated. The agency terminates if its purpose becomes illegal.

Even though authority has terminated, whether by action of the parties or operation of law, the principal may still be subject to liability. Apparent authority in many instances will still exist; this is called lingering authority. It is imperative for a principal on termination of authority to notify all those who may still be in a position to deal with the agent. The only exceptions to this requirement are when termination is effected by death, loss of the principal’s capacity, or an event that would make it impossible to carry out the object of the agency.


A person is always liable for her own torts, so an agent who commits a tort is liable; if the tort was in the scope of employment the principal is liable too. Unless the principal put the agent up to committing the tort, the agent will have to reimburse the principal. An agent is not generally liable for contracts made; the principal is liable. But the agent will be liable if he is undisclosed or partially disclosed, if the agent lacks authority or exceeds it, or, of course, if the agent entered into the contract in a personal capacity.

Agencies terminate expressly or impliedly or by operation of law. An agency terminates expressly by the terms of the agreement or mutual consent, or by the principal’s revocation or the agent’s renunciation. An agency terminates impliedly by any number of circumstances in which it is reasonable to assume one or both of the parties would not want the relationship to continue. An agency will terminate by operation of law when one or the other party dies or becomes incompetent, or if the object of the agency becomes illegal. However, an agent may have apparent lingering authority, so the principal, upon termination of the agency, should notify those who might deal with the agent that the relationship is severed.


  1. Pauline, the owner of a large bakery business, wishes to expand her facilities by purchasing the adjacent property. She engages Alice as an agent to negotiate the deal with the property owner but instructs her not to tell the property owner that she—Alice—is acting as an agent because Pauline is concerned that the property owner would demand a high price. A reasonable contract is made. When the economy sours, Pauline decides not to expand and cancels the plan. Who is liable for the breach?
  2. Peter, the principal, instructs his agent, Alice, to tour England and purchase antique dining room furniture for Peter’s store. Alice buys an antique bed set. Who is liable, Peter or Alice? Suppose the seller did not know of the limit on Alice’s authority and sells the bed set to Alice in good faith. What happens when Peter discovers he owes the seller for the set?
  3. Under what circumstances will the agency terminate expressly?
  4. Agent is hired by Principal to sell a new drug, Phobbot. Six months later, as it becomes apparent that Phobbot has nasty side effects (including death), the Food and Drug Administration orders the drug pulled from the shelves. Agent’s agency is terminated; what terminology is appropriate to describe how?
  5. Principal engages Agent to buy lumber, and in that capacity Agent deals with several large timber owners. Agent’s contract ends on July 31; on August 1, Agent buys $150,000 worth of lumber from a seller with whom he had dealt previously on Principal’s behalf. Who is liable and why?