Reaper and Deals with the Devil

We’ve talked about contracts with the devil on Law and the Multiverse before, in the context of the Ghost Rider movie.  Recently I’ve been catching up on the (sadly cancelled) TV show Reaper (available on DVD and via Netflix), which has the benefit of being considerably better than Ghost Rider was, but on the other hand it lacks Sam Elliott.

Anyway, Reaper‘s protagonist, Sam Oliver, is tasked by the Devil with capturing souls who have escaped from hell, most of whom have inexplicably gained supernatural powers related to their earthly sins.  In some cases the souls were people who had sold their souls to the Devil.  Normally this is done with a written contract, which we get glimpses of at various points in the show, but in one episode the Devil foolishly only made a verbal agreement with a mortal, Gary, and Sam is asked to get Gary’s signature on a written contract.  This leads to a couple of interesting legal issues.

(Note: We’re assuming that the Devil follows something close to common law contract law, as is typical in English and American Faustian bargain situations.)

I. Modification of Contracts

But wait, if the Devil already has a verbal agreement with Gary, why does he need a written contract?  If he wants to add new terms to the deal that weren’t covered in the verbal agreement (which seems likely given the size of the written contracts), then the Devil may also have to support that modification with additional consideration (i.e. something of value promised by the Devil).  According to the Restatement (Second) of Contracts:

A promise modifying a duty under a contract not fully performed on either side is binding
(a) if the modification is fair and equitable in view of circumstances not anticipated by the parties when the contract was made; or
(b) to the extent provided by statute; or
(c) to the extent that justice requires enforcement in view of material change of position in reliance on the promise.

Given the ‘gotcha’ nature of contracts with the Devil, we’d say subsection (a) doesn’t apply, since it’s highly unlikely that the new terms are fair and equitable.  Subsection (c) is basically a reference to promissory estoppel and wouldn’t seem to apply here, either.

It’s an interesting question whether subsection (b) applies, however.  It’s a reference to the Uniform Commercial Code’s rule that additional consideration is not required to modify a contract for the sale of goods.  Is the sale of a soul a sale of goods?  According to UCC § 2-103(k), “‘Goods’ means all things that are movable at the time of identification to a contract for sale.”  Is a soul movable at the time of the contract?  Maybe not, since (in the Reaper universe) the soul is attached to the body until death, at which point the soul either goes to heaven or hell.  On the other hand, the term also includes ‘future goods,’ but it isn’t clear to me that a soul would qualify, since it already exists, it just isn’t movable.

But let’s assume the Devil (and Gary) can find some worthwhile bit of new consideration in order to justify the modification, or that the requirement doesn’t apply.  Is there really a need for a written contract in the first place?  Couldn’t they modify the contract verbally? Is the original verbal contract even valid? It depends.

II. Signed Contracts and the Statute of Frauds

In general contracts do not have to be in writing.  The only fundamental requirements are an offer, acceptance of that offer, and consideration.  However, it was long ago recognized that some contracts deal with such important rights (e.g. ownership of land), that they really need to be written down.  And so the Statute of Frauds was created in England way back in 1677, and similar laws exist in most jurisdictions.  The exact terms vary from statute to statute, but two common terms are relevant here.  The first is that contracts involving the sale of goods above a certain value must be in writing.  The second is that contracts that cannot be performed within one year must be in writing.

It’s hard to say how much a soul is worth, and of course there’s the issue of whether it’s a sale of goods in the first place.  But in Gary’s case he sold his soul for material wealth far in excess of the minimum required by the Statute of Frauds, so as long as a soul is a ‘good,’ then the Statute of Frauds might be triggered.

As for the one year exception: it depends on the term.  Someone who made a deal to live for at least one more year might trigger it, or someone who made a deal for a million dollars a year every year for twenty years.  But most deals with the Devil seem to be wrapped up pretty quickly, and Gary’s was no exception.  In fact, the Devil even contemplates having Gary killed in order to cheat him out of an opportunity to repent.

But even if the Statute of Frauds is triggered, Gary might have painted himself into a corner by accepting the Devil’s performance of his end of the bargain (i.e. the delivery of at least some of the material wealth).  Acceptance of partial performance can prevent a party from claiming the Statute of Frauds as a defense.  See, e.g., Railan v. Katyal, 766 A.2d 998, 1007-08 (D.C. Ct. App. 2001).  So in this case at least, the contract did not need to be in writing as long as the Devil was satisfied with the terms of the verbal agreement.  The Devil is correct, however, that proving the existence and terms of the verbal agreement can be difficult.

III. Aliases

At one point Gary signs the contract, but he signs an alias (‘Jim Fartington’).  Gary claims that this is not binding against him, since that’s not his name.  In fact, there is no particular requirement that a signature be one’s legal name, much less written in cursive or the like.  Instead, a signature is just a physical record of the intent to make a contract.  “The signature to a memorandum may be any symbol made or adopted with an intention, actual or apparent, to authenticate the writing as that of the signer.” Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 134 (emphasis added).  So when Gary signed the contract, he did so with the apparent intention of authenticating the signature as his own.  Thus, he may well be bound by the contract.

IV. Conclusion

Reaper is a great show, and it’s a shame it was canceled.  Despite the plot revolving around contracts with the Devil, there aren’t too many legal issues, but this episode raised some great contract law issues that we don’t get to talk about on the blog very often.  In this case, the Devil probably actually had Gary dead to rights.  I guess the Devil should have consulted an attorney, which you’d think would be easy for him to arrange.

26 responses to “Reaper and Deals with the Devil

  1. James Pollock

    Reconcile
    ” Is a soul movable at the time of the contract? Maybe not, since (in the Reaper universe) the soul is attached to the body until death”
    with
    ” the Devil even contemplates having Gary killed”

    I would see a soul as goods, to the extent that the parties involved treat them as goods. The fact that some (or even most) people consider a soul inalienable wouldn’t matter if the two parties considered it not to be, particularly if one party has supernatural knowledge that it both exists and can be captured.
    Then there’s the fact that a soul is clearly movable, in the sense that if it must remain with the body, and the body is movable, then the soul is movable.

    • Determining whether it’s goods or not probably depends more on whatever jurisdiction this falls under. I recall a powerful First Nation leader in the 19th century asking (rhetorically) something to the effect of whether you could ‘own the skies’. Today there aren’t many people who would say no, but different states might have different conclusions.

  2. John McSorley

    ‘So when Gary signed the contract, he did so with the apparent intention of authenticating the signature as his own’

    Surely by using somebody elses name he is in fact showing an intent to not authenticate?

    • He was handed a contract he was asked to sign, seemed willing to sign, and if I’m recalling correctly even verbally agreed he would sign, and then put pen to paper to sign it. If he didn’t explicitly say that the reason he signed another name was so it wouldn’t “count”, there could be any number of reasons for doing so, whether he changed his name at some point and the signed name is either his birth name (as he considers that more appropriate for deals with the devil) or his new name (and the devil’s records just aren’t updated yet), or either name may just be an alias he goes by. Or his signature may just be so illegible as to morph into an entirely different name.

      I am curious if there’s a line though. What if the signature were the printed words “I refuse”? Or what if it could be proven that he moved the pen against the paper to sign it (perhaps leaving a slight, invisible-to-the-naked-eye impression on the paper), but there were no ink mark, whether because the pen was out of ink or he never clicked it

  3. Then there’s also the biggest contract boondoggle in the whole show – the contract binding Sam to the Devil. It creates a condition that could be construed as involuntary servitude (A person could, I suppose, pledge their own life to the Devil’s service, but Sam’s life was pledged by his parents before he was even born, so he had no choice in the matter. That would most likely make the contract void, since it would be a contract for an illegal purpose – though Sam was routinely unsuccessful in getting out of the contract). And it’s possible that that contract was not being legally fulfilled, assuming it should be fulfilled. The show implied (and was on the cusp of saying outright before it was cancelled, if I recall correctly) that Sam was the Devil’s son, not his father’s. If that were the case, wouldn’t there be dispute over whether the contract was intended for Sam (his mother’s first born) or his brother (his father’s first born)?

    • Melanie Koleini

      I haven’t watched the show in years so I could be remembering wrong but…

      Near the end of one episode, Sam’s father is shown shredding some papers. (The implication being he was destroying part of Sam’s copy of the contract before Sam could read it.) If I am remembering (and inferring) correctly, that means the original contract was almost certainly meant to refer to Sam.

    • Jamas Enright

      If you look at the Wikipaedia page for Reaper, they reveal Season 3 ideas, and explain a bit more about the dad…

    • If memory serves, in later episodes Sam consulted with a couple of demons about his contract and they were baffled because contracts don’t work that way. Basically, it is implied that Sam was TOLD his parents had sold his soul to the Devil, but in actuality something else is going on and the Devil is screwing with him.

      Of course, on the flip-side, you could argue that since we’re dealing with Satan here and the matter is a supernatural affair, the contract probably isn’t based on any human law. It would hardly be unprecedented in human history for a person to be legally considered the property of someone else from the moment of their conception either (see Slavery), and just because that is illegal in modern human law doesn’t mean that the Devil has to obey those laws anyway.

      You could see this as comparable to a crime boss writing up a criminal contract and expecting the other party to abide by the terms of that contract- yes, you could appeal to the courts and have the contract declared illegal, but that doesn’t mean the crime boss doesn’t expect you to fulfil the terms of your contract regardless as he is appealing to another set of laws entirely.

  4. Is a soul any less a “movable good” than say a contract to sell one’s tatooed skin after death? (excluding body part sale issues generally). Perhaps it’s analogous to one of those people who have themselves tatooed all over as an artistic statement. In that situation, there’s obviously something of value as an object, but it can’t be extracted (nominally) while the person is still alive.

  5. James Pollock

    Ebay will not allow sales of souls, on the premise that souls are body parts and sales of body parts are not permitted on ebay.

    Would trading in soul futures violate securities laws?

    • Almost. They apparently use convergent contingent reasoning:

      If the soul does not exist, eBay could not allow the auctioning of the soul because there would be nothing to sell. However if the soul does exist, then in accordance with eBay’s policy on human parts and remains we would not allow the auctioning of human souls.

      So, whether or not souls exist, their sale is not permitted on Ebay. Despite this, there’s usually one to five up for bid on any given day… usually without a buy-it-now option, and a long enough bid time that Ebay takes it down before the auction actually completes.

      This policy’s reasoning does seem to leave open the question of whether you could try to sell the soul of your pet dog….

  6. Gary should petition his Congressman and Senators to pass a law outlawing the sale of souls and make it effective retroactively so as to void his contract.

    • Unfortunately that wouldn’t be permissible under US law, as such a thing would constitute an law Ex Post Facto. In brief, the constitution of the United States doesn’t allow a law to be passed (by congress or the states) that would retroactively make a previously legal act illegal, and allow such an act to be punished. It’s also understood, possibly because of this (I don’t claim to be a lawyer), that when a law comes into effect, only actions taken after its passing would be punishable. This is why millions of people weren’t charged for the sale, purchase, and/or consumption of alcohol after prohibition started.

      So even if the congress were to take the matter seriously and ban the sale of souls, Gary would still be out of luck because the sale was done prior to its implementation.

      • I don’t think that’s how Ex Post Facto works. It might not be possible to PUNISH the Devil for making the contract, but it is surely possible to declare the contract void if you are making a sale of something that is now deemed illegal. Otherwise you’d have cases like, “I paid for a slave before Emancipation and I still have not received my property”, or “I made an order for the delivery of alcohol before Prohibition and I want my beer”.

        At best, either Gary or the state could be required to compensate the Devil since he is no longer allowed to “own” a human soul. Even that seems unlikely however, since I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened in the aforementioned cases of alcohol and slavery.

        Of course, even if passing a law to ban the sale of souls DID have a chance of succeeding, the Devil likely has better lobbyists than anybody and no doubt owns the Congressman and Senator that Gary is writing to anyway, so if the law doesn’t screw him over, politics will anyway.

  7. If we assume that Hell is a seperate country to the US (which, trolling aside, seems likely. Satan is the Prince of Hell, after all) and that the Devil was acting as head of government when he made that contract, then does the contract have to abide by both US laws and Hell laws? Could both parties agree that, even though the activities were being carried out in the US, Hell’s laws would apply to any disputes if they differed from US laws?

    I actually wondered about this with the Latveria vs Damage Inc. article as well.

    • James Pollock

      It’s called a “choice of law” provision. The parties involved get to choose which law applies. It’s usually used to decide which state court will hear a dispute. The courts have shown a tendency to honor choice of law clauses, even in contracts of adhesion (that is, where one side is presented with a pre-written contract and the choice to either accept it as-is or to have no contract. Think “cell-phone contract”.)

      • Ken Arromdee

        I think that a contract where you pledge your child’s soul is outright illegal, not just a contract of adhesion. What do the courts do when you have a contract saying that you’re going to be a slave in the Sudan (or for that matter, selling your child into slavery in the Sudan)? I’d think such a contract is against public policy and would be completely void in the US. People in the US cannot agree that a slavery contract is bound by Sudan’s laws.

        This also raises the questions of specific performance and self-help. If I write a contract on something and renege, I was under the impression that it’s hard to get a court to require that the contract be fulfilled as written, as opposed to requiring the payment of damages. I was also under the impression that when there’s a contract dispute over owning something, one party is not allowed to just come in and take it from the other party just because they claim they have a right to it (unless it’s a repossession, which this isn’t). So if Sam has a contract to sell his soul, the Devil is not allowed to just take the soul, and if Sam won’t hand it over, the Devil has to sue for damages.

      • Regarding contract remedies: you’re correct that damages are the usual remedy, but specific performance (i.e. an injunction to carry out the contract) is available in certain circumstances, typically in cases of the sale of real estate or unique personal property such as works of art. I think a soul could qualify as ‘unique personal property.’

      • James Pollock

        The interwebs seem to have swallowed my comment that a U.S. court would probably rule that any contract with the devil was void for unconscionability, regardless of the choice of law provision. Perhaps Dark Forces were at work…

      • I understand that there is at least one registered religious group in the U.S. that is ‘Satanist’ (though I’m not quite sure how that works). Between that and the fact that you can make a contract with just about anyone in the world to do something that is not illegal the courts probably wouldn’t rule that it was unconscionable simply because the contract was made with the Devil. It would have to be the details of the contract.

      • Well, technically, the Church of Satan are atheists who just believe that “Satan” is a Christian strawman metaphor for the human Id and our “base” natural impulses.

        Other Satanist groups think he is a pre-Christian god who was demonised by the Catholic Church as so many others were and he doesn’t really resemble the Abrahamic Devil, who is in fact- as usually depicted in the Bible- a prosecutor by trade, albeit one who might enjoy his job a bit too much. The Hebrew term “Ha-Satan” means “The Adversary” and more or less gives him a legal role. Though it is mentioned in passing that he “fell” from Heaven and is a sinister force, he is acting with a degree of authority permitted by God. Hence “Prince” of Hell- he is a rebellious vassal of the Big Guy Upstairs, and has to obey His laws (or at least somehow get by them).

        People who legitimately recognise the Devil as a malevolent entity and worship him anyway are few and far between.

    • If that’s the case, the the US could put an embargo on the export of souls making it illegal for Gary’s soul to be tranported out of the country. His soul might belong to the Devil, but he’ll spend eternity here and not in hell. The Devil is crafty though and might park Gary’s soul in Detroit for eternity.

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  9. Hey, on reading this, it actually reminds me of a contract from Whateley, where a heroic character, who is half-demon, made a deal with a villain. The villain offered a ‘let’s agree to not fight each other’, and the hero signed with a strange sigil.

    Then pointed out that the strange sigil was just “Oh hell no” upside down. Would this be a valid contract?

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