The Officious Intermeddler and Unjust Enrichment

businessman offering a pen

If you’ve driven in the city, you may have had the startling experience of a disheveled-looking man approaching your vehicle at a traffic light that spits on your windshield and wipes off your windshield with the arm of a soiled jacket.

Once having completed this task, the disheveled man will stick out a hand, palm up, requesting that you pay for the services rendered of having had the vehicle windshield “cleaned.”

You may not have known it at the time, but the law would call this man an “officious intermeddler,” or one who demands payment for services that were not expressly or impliedly asked for.

The Officious Intermeddler

Our Western legal response to the officious intermeddler goes back at least to Roman times, when a Roman whose chariot may have been spat upon would have responded to the officious intermeddler by stating, Culpa est immiscere se rei ad se non pertinenti, or in English: “It is a fault for anyone to meddle in a matter not pertaining to him.”

So we don’t have to pay up to the officious intermeddler.

The officious intermeddler helps illustrate a basic tenant of contracts law that is so fundamental that we may often overlook it as we press on to more complex matters. That idea is that there must be an express or implied understanding between the offeror (one who offers to engage in a contract) and the offeree (one who must consider to accept a contract).

The express contract is relatively simple; either orally or in writing someone offers to provide a service or good and another must consider to accept it. An implied contract provides that by the conduct of the parties involved a contract exists.

An example of an express contract would be when someone waves down a taxi and enters the backseat as a passenger. Upon entering the taxi, the passenger does not have to say, “I wish to engage your services for the purposes of transport to another locality, at which time I will pay a fixed amount of money per your transportation services payment matrix; do you accept my offer?” The conduct of the taxi passenger and the taxi driver is enough to infer agreement.

Unjust Enrichment

Consider the following example. Let us say that 14-year-old Johnny is mowing neighbors’ yards for money. Johnny pushes his lawnmower down the street to neighbors’ doors, and asks them if they would like their lawns mowed for $10.

Johnny arrives at Bill’s house. Bill has a large window in the front of his home, and happens to be standing and enjoying the morning sunrise with a cup of coffee when Johnny comes into view. Johnny and Bill are clearly visible to one another. Johnny points at his lawnmower and gives Bill a thumbs up gesture. Bill simply continues to enjoy his morning coffee with no outward gesture of assent or disagreement.

Forty-five minutes later, Johnny knocks on Bill’s door after having completed a thorough job of mowing Bill’s yard. Johnny asks for $10 for mowing the yard. Bill refuses to pay, since he argues that he neither expressly nor impliedly agreed for the service of having his yard mowed. Bill believes Johnny is an officious intermeddler, whereas Johnny thinks he should be paid for services rendered.

Who is right?

Based upon our review thus far, you may believe that Johnny is an officious intermeddler, because there was definitely no express contract and argumentatively no implied contract.

However, some jurisdictions may ‘save’ Johnny for having rendered a service through the concept of unjust enrichment.

The classic unjust enrichment definition provides that, “A person who has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another is required to make restitution to the other.” Here, the argument would be that Johnny conferred a benefit in good faith to Bill, and Bill impliedly consented to the service being rendered – the situation should have rendered an affirmative duty for Bill to wave Johnny off from mowing his yard. It would be up to the court to determine what level of compensation Johnny should be entitled to.

As you can guess, the difference between the officious intermeddler and the person that should be entitled to compensation through the concept of unjust enrichment is not always clear. This is where the gray areas of the law are applied with the best consciousness of judge and jury.

Want to read more about the legal system in Arizona? Check out Kevin Walling’s previous article about the Maricopa County court system. To learn about a degree in legal studies, visit Grand Canyon University’s website.

References

Dannemann, G. (2012). Defenses And Objections to Liability in Restitution.-Is Uniust Enrichment Law an Of-ficious Intermeddler. Boston University Law Review, 92,

Goetz, C. J., & Scott, R. E. (1985). The limits of expanded choice: An analysis of the interactions between express and implied contract terms. California Law Review, 261-322.

Sherwin, E. (2000). Restitution and Equity: An Analysis of the Principle of Unjust Enrichment. Tex. L. Rev., 79, 2083.

Restatement of Restitution §§1-2 (1937).

Restatement (Third) of Restitution and Unjust Enrichment §§ 20-30 (2011).

Restatement of Contracts 2nd, §74

More about Kevin:

Kevin Walling was born in Eugene, OR. He spent the first half of his childhood on a cattle ranch in Myrtle Creek, OR and the other half in the suburban town of Tigard, OR. Following graduation from Tigard High School, Kevin attended Portland Community College and obtained an Associate of Arts from that institution. Following graduation, he enrolled at University of Oregon and completed a Bachelor of Science in political science. He decided to attend law school and was accepted at Willamette University, located in Salem, OR. His goal in law school was to become a lobbyist, and he achieved that goal, working for a lobbying firm as his first employment opportunity following law school. He found that lobbying was not what I expected it to be, so he sat for and passed the Washington state bar and transitioned from lobbying to working for a public housing authority in Washington. Eventually he accepted an opportunity to become an administrative law judge for the State of Arizona. Since moving to Arizona, he also obtained a Master of Public Administration from Webster University and, most importantly, met his wife, with whom he enjoys the pleasure of having twin daughters. Kevin enjoys hiking, archery, fencing, camping, bicycling and reading. He also enjoys traveling, and cannot resist visiting every roadside kitsch attraction he can find. He is in his second year as a full-time instructor at Grand Canyon University.

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