April 22, 2008

Party improving adjacent land without an express contract is awarded quantum meruit for value of materials and labor

SAMUEL DEAN WILLIAMS v. RUSSELL W. COFFEY (Tenn.Ct.App. April 21, 2008).

This case involves a dispute over the improvements made to defendant's land by plaintiff, which alleged that defendant had agreed to sell the land on which the improvements were made. The Trial Court found an implied contract between the parties and awarded plaintiff damages. On appeal, we hold that the Trial Court employed the wrong measure of damages, vacate the damage award and remand for determination of damages under quantum meruit.

Opinions may be found at the TBA website:

"Under Tennessee law there are two distinct types of implied contracts: contracts implied in fact and contracts implied in law, which are often referred to as quasi contracts. A contract implied in fact arises under circumstances which show mutual intent of assent to contract, consideration and lawful purpose. Mutual assent may be shown by the conduct of the parties and the surrounding circumstances. [] In contrast to a contract implied in fact, “contracts implied in law are created by law without the assent of the party bound, on the basis that they are dictated by reason and justice.” [] The Supreme Court has established that a party seeking to recover on an implied contract in law or quasi contract theory must prove the following elements: (1) there is no existing, enforceable contract between the parties covering the same subject matter; (2) the party seeking recovery proves that it provided valuable goods or services; (3) the party to be charged received the goods or services; (4) the circumstances indicate that the parties to the transaction should have reasonably understood that the person providing the goods or services expected to be compensated and; (5) the circumstances demonstrate that it would be unjust for a party to retain the goods or services without payment. []" Id. (citations omitted).

"The most cogent factor for consideration regarding recovery under a quasi contract is unjust enrichment of the parties. [] A quantum meruit recovery is limited to the actual value of the goods and services received by the defendant. [] The reasonable value of services should be based on the customs and practices prevailing in the same sort of business in which the services would normally be provided. [] To prove the reasonable value of the goods and services, the party seeking to recover in quantum meruit can explain the method used to arrive at the fee or offer proof from other professionals in the same business or trade." Id. (citations omitted).

"On this theory, the case law is clear that a quantum meruit recovery must be the reasonable value of the material and labor furnished. [] The Trial Court erred in basing the plaintiff’s recovery on the increased value of defendant’s property. The Court reasoned “Damages to real estate are generally measured by the fair market value of the land immediately prior to the loss, less the fair market value immediately after the loss”. With due deference to the Trial Court, this reasoning is flawed as the property at issue was not damaged, but rather it was possibly improved by plaintiff’s services." Id. (citations omitted).