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Harrington v Taylor

36 SE 2d 227 (1945)


The case concerned the issue of consideration - in particular, the issue of past consideration. The plaintiff in this case intervened in a dispute between the defendent and his wife and in doing so effectively saved the defendant's life, but was injured in the process. The defendant subsequently promised to pay the plaintiff for the damages she suffered as a result of intervening. He later refused to pay. Was there consideration?

The Court held that there was not - the only consideration suggested was a voluntarily performed humanitarian act. Although the defendant might have some moral obligation to pay, he did not have a contractual obligation to do so.




The defendant, Taylor (D) had assaulted his wife (W). She escaped to the plaintiff's, Harringon's (P) house. 

D later broke into P’s house and assaulted W again. W knocked D down with an axe and was about to decapitate him when D intervened and, in the process, her hand was badly mutilated by the axe. This was described by the Court in the following way:

The next day the defendant gained access to the house and began [691] another assault upon his wife. The defendant's wife knocked him down with an axe, and was on the point of cutting his head open or decapitating him while he was laying on the floor, and the plaintiff intervened, caught the axe as it was descending, and the blow intended for defendant fell upon her hand, mutilating it badly, but saving defendant's life.

D survived and later promised to pay P for her damages. 

He payed a small sum then refused to pay any more. Was there valid consideration for D’s promise to pay P’s damages?



No – the act was ‘voluntarily performed’

The Court did, however, clearlythink that the defendant should feel morally obliged to pay P’s damages!

The question presented is whether there was a consideration recognized by our law as sufficient to support the promise. The court is of the opinion that, however much the defendant should be impelled by common gratitude to alleviate the plaintiff's misfortune, a humanitarian act of this kind, voluntarily performed, is not such consideration as would entitle her to recover at law. [my emphasis]