Rewards, Unilateral Contracts, and Bat Family # 19

A reader named Richard recently emailed with an interesting situation from Batman Family # 19, a short-lived series from the late 1970s, just before the DC Implosion. Here are the facts: Man-Bat, a sometime villain who occasionally does a good turn, hands in a villain (Snafu) to the cops and inquires about the possibility of a reward. The police captain refuses to pay, saying that Man-Bat wasn’t going to get paid until he had paid for property he damaged during the apprehension of the villain.

So can the captain do that?

I. Rewards Generally

As mentioned in an earlier post, rewards are considered to be a species of contract, specifically a unilateral contract. Most contracts are bilateral contracts in that the contracting parties each exchange “a promise for a promise.”  In a unilateral contract one party offers a promise to anyone who accepts the contract by doing something specified in the contract (i.e. “acceptance by performance”). Rewards are perhaps a classic example of a unilateral contract; contests are another. So those posters at the post office offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of wanted persons? Those are unilateral contracts, the terms of which are stated in the posters, and anyone who fulfills those terms can claim the stated reward.

And they really are contracts. Acceptance of a unilateral offer of this sort is only possible through performance. In a bilateral contract, one might accept either by promise or by performance, depending on how that was worked out. But unilateral contracts are only possible through performance. One cannot simply say “I’ll take it!” and pre-emptively claim a reward before the perp has been handed in. Nor could one say “I’ve agreed to bring in this suspect, so no one else can collect on it!” the way one could with, say, making an offer on a house. Even though the house hasn’t been sold, the seller can’t go selling it to someone else before the deal closes. But with a reward or other kind of unilateral contract, anyone who wants to can attempt to fulfill the contract, and the one who does is entitled to collect the reward.

As far as we can tell, there’s nothing special about this particular reward. Man-Bat turned in the right villain, and under normal circumstances, the police department—who is presumably the entity that offered the reward—should be obligated to pay.

II. Defenses to Reward Claims

In this story though, the chief refuses to do so. Can he get away with it? Well, like any other contract, there are defenses to unilateral contracts.  In most states the person claiming the reward must have known of the reward before arresting the wanted person; grabbing a random fugitive and then discovering the bounty won’t work.  See, e.g., Reynolds v. Eagle Pencil Co., 285 N.Y. 448 (1941).  Under this view, a unilateral contract, like all contracts, requires mutual assent (i.e. a common understanding of the terms of the contract, sometimes called a “meeting of the minds”).  Since a unilateral contract is not formed until the offer is accepted by the required performance, that performance must be done by someone who is aware of the offer.

A few states and the federal government, however, take a different view, arguing that we want to encourage the apprehension of fugitives, so rewarding the apprehenders even if they weren’t aware of the reward is a socially beneficial policy.  See, e.g., Drummond v. U.S., 35 Ct. Cl. 356 (1900).  This approach isn’t really based on the principles of contract law so much as a policy or statute-based exception to those principles.  1 Williston on Contracts § 4:17.

In any case, this may be where Man-Bat’s claim falls down, as he didn’t know of the existence of a reward for this particular villain.  Here’s the exchange:

Man-Bat: There wouldn’t happen to be any reward for bringing him in, would there?

Police Captain: Is that all you care about, bounty hunter? Well, I’ll tell you! Yes, there’s a reward—but you’re not getting a penny till all the damages to the Trade Center are paid for!

So depending on the law in the state Gotham is in, Man-Bat may not be entitled to anything.  He really should have checked the wanted posters before going on patrol.  But let’s suppose he’s in a state that doesn’t require knowledge of a reward.  Are there any other defenses or arguments the police could make?

There may be specific requirements that the claimant must meet. This could be anything from “Information leading to the arrest of” to “Information leading to the conviction of” to “Must be turned in by a specific date,” to “Must be turned in at a specific address.” Failure to comply with a requirement would preclude one from claiming the reward, because one would not have performed the required actions. Lastly, the subject of a reward generally isn’t allowed to claim it by turning himself in. The theory here, in addition to public policy rationale against that sort of conflict of interest, is that even with unilateral contracts, consideration is a requirement, and a thing which one was legally obligated to do anyway cannot serve as consideration for a contract. As fugitives are already legally obligated to turn themselves in to the authorities, doing so voluntarily doesn’t merit a reward on their part.

“Must not owe the city any money” isn’t generally one of them, especially if it wasn’t part of the reward offer. No fair adding terms to the contract after the offer has been made to the public, and especially no changing of terms depending on who tries to claim it. Open to the public is open to the public (other than the perp).

But there’s a little more going on here. The chief claims that Man-Bat damaged the Trade Center, specifically a window when he busted in to catch Snafu. This may or may not be a municipal building, and Man-Bat certainly hasn’t been found liable in court at this point. So Man-Bat may or may not actually owe the city any money (yet!). So, best case scenario for the captain, is that Man-Bat has actually been sued by the city (or its insurer) for damages, had a judgment awarded against him, and failed to pay. Even if all of that were true, the police chief is unlikely to have the authority to make the decision to credit the reward money to Man-Bat’s tab.

Assuming Man-Bat actually does owe the city money, Man-Bat isn’t really going to be able to do anything about it. Filing suit to collect the reward would result in a counter-claim based on the city’s claim against him, and the result would be that a judge would simply deduct the reward from the outstanding debt. So while the city might not be able to do this—or might choose not to—on its own authority, the result would be the same if Man-Bat contested the chief’s decision.

And what if Man-Bat doesn’t owe the city anything, whether because there hasn’t been a judgment, the judgment was satisfied, or because the city didn’t actually own the building?  Well, Man-Bat doesn’t exactly have a spotless record, and showing up to claim the reward would probably result in him being arrested.  Not the best strategy.  We would recommend sending in an agent to collect the reward on his behalf.

III. Conclusion

Depending on the law in Gotham the city may have a good defense in that Man-Bat wasn’t aware of the reward when he apprehended Snafu.  But even if he is eligible for the reward, Man-Bat may not be able to collect it, simply as a practical matter. If he owes the money, the city will be able to deduct the reward from his tab, either as a matter of negotiation or as the result of litigation.  If he doesn’t owe any money, then the trick is collecting it without getting arrested.

Thanks for the question, Richard!

12 Responses to Rewards, Unilateral Contracts, and Bat Family # 19

  1. 1. Is not knowing the reward specifically enough (if he’d asked “what’s the reward for this guy?” instead.)

    2. Does the police’s failure to award the reward justify retrieving the fugitive? (Obviously, not if he’s already been taken into custody and lodged in a cell… but at which point does “no reward? Then you can’t have him.” become acceptable?

    3. Tangential… what happens if a bounty hunter grabs a guy who’s already settled up with the state?

    • 1. As I understand it, it’s enough to know of the existence of a reward. The cases I read didn’t require a specific knowledge of the exact amount of the reward.

      Some states (New York, for example) also require that the performance be made for the purpose of receiving the reward. For example, suppose someone hears on the news that there’s a reward for a fugitive. Then later that person is attacked in an alley by a masked assailant. They defend themselves, execute a valid citizen’s arrest, and then take the attacker to the police station, whereupon it is revealed that it was the fugitive. In some states that wouldn’t be enough to claim the reward, since the performance wasn’t done for the purpose of receiving the reward. It was just a coincidence.

      2. I think “No reward? Then you can’t have him.” becomes a problem at the point that the would-be bounty hunter is aiding and abetting a fugitive. So in this case if Man-Bat had grabbed Snafu and taken him from the police station, I think that would be a problem. If this was done against the fugitive’s will then it might also be false imprisonment or kidnapping.

      3. False imprisonment or kidnapping charges, probably.

      • James Pollock

        Criminal or tort? Or both? Or have I stumbled onto a lawprof scenario where you can get any result you want by minor tweaking of the facts (but wait! Suppose the reward notice names the wrong person due to error by whoever makes up the posters? OK, then what if the wrong guy, knowing he doesn’t actually face any liability, is in on it, and is just trying to cash in the reward?)

  2. If he hired an agent to collect on his behalf, could that agent be compelled by police or court to reveal his location, or is there some protection implicit there?

  3. On number 2, wouldn’t refusing to turn over a fugitive to the police once you have him in custody end up being, like obstruction of justice or something?

    • If citizens have a duty to turn in fugitives, then rewards aren’t enforceable as contracts because there’s no consideration on the part of the person claiming the reward… they’re just doing something they’re already legally required to do.

      • It depends on the facts. Failing to turn him in is one thing (i.e. probably legally okay, if kind of a jerk move). Hiding or sheltering the fugitive is another, as is (essentially) holding the fugitive for ransom from the police.

      • Well, if the reward offer is a unilateral contract, it invites acceptance by performance, but also counteroffers.

  4. A reader named Richard

    Wow! Thanks for answering my question so quickly! Just one small point; I’m pretty sure this story DID take place in NY (Man-Bat had left Gotham some years prior to Batman Family #19, so as not to crowd Batman’s style. Then again, in Batman Family #20 he returned to Gotham to be a PI so… yeah).

    That means the Trade Authority of New York & New Jersey was responsible for the Trade Center (I seem to recall they were held responsible for the ’93 bombings), which means Man-Bat WAS at fault! Fascinating!

    Thanks again!

    • Ah, I didn’t catch that it was set in NY and that the “Trade Center” specifically meant the World Trade Center. That makes sense. In that case, definitely no reward for Man-Bat and he may well owe the city some money for that window.

  5. Aside from all other issues, does Man bat have locus to sue for his reward of it is not paid ? Would he be able to sue in his nom de guerre name as a legal entity or would he venture to use his real name, thus revealing himself. he would no doubt adopt a commercial/cost/benefit approach !

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