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Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. - 479 N.W.2d 387 (Minn. 1992)


Under promissory estoppel, a promise which is expected to induce definite action by the promisee, and does induce the action, is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcing the promise. First of all, the promise must be clear and definite. Secondly, the promisor must have intended to induce reliance on the part of the promisee, and such reliance must have occurred to the promisee's detriment. This leads to the third step in a promissory estoppel analysis: must the promise be enforced to prevent an injustice? The test is not whether the promise should be enforced to do justice, but whether enforcement is required to prevent an injustice. 


On October 28, 1982, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (Star Tribune) and the St. Paul Pioneer Press each published a story on the gubernatorial election campaign, reporting that Marlene Johnson, the DFL nominee for lieutenant governor, had been charged in 1969 for three counts of unlawful assembly, and in 1970, had been convicted of shoplifting. Both newspapers revealed that Dan Cohen had supplied this information to them. The Star Tribune identified Cohen as a political associate of the Independent-Republican gubernatorial candidate and named the advertising firm where Cohen was employed. On the same day as the newspaper stories were published, Cohen was fired.

Cohen then commenced this lawsuit against defendants Cowles Media Company, publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Northwest Publications, Inc., publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch, on the theories of breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. The jury found liability on both theories and awarded $ 200,000 compensatory damages against the two defendants, jointly and severally. The jury also awarded $ 250,000 punitive damages against each newspaper on the misrepresentation claim. The court of appeals set aside recovery on the basis of fraudulent misrepresentation (and with it the punitive damages award), but affirmed recovery of the compensatory damages on the basis of a breach of contract. The Supreme Court of Minnesota found that news source was not entitled to recovery on either claim. The United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded to the state supreme court for further review.


Was Cohen entitled to damages?




On remand, the court affirmed the decision of the intermediate appellate court, but on promissory estoppel grounds. In reaching its decision, the court held that news source's failure to plead promissory estoppel did not bar him from asserting the theory on appeal. The court explained that it was not unfair to newspapers to decide the case on the basis of promissory estoppel because the case involved a novel legal issue, where the court adopted an approach closely akin to the theory on which the case was originally pled and tried. Thus, the court affirmed the verdict in favor of new source for compensatory damages in the amount of $200,000.

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