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Law School Case Brief

Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. - 457 N.W.2d 199 (Minn. 1990)

Rule:

The doctrine of promissory estoppel implies a contract in law where none exists in fact. According to the doctrine, well-established in this state, a promise expected or reasonably expected to induce definite action by the promisee that does induce action is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcing the promise.

Facts:

Claiming a reporter's promise to keep his name out of a news story was broken, plaintiff Dan Cohen sued defendants Northwest Publications, Inc., publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch (Pioneer Press), and Cowles Media Company, publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (Star Tribune). The trial court ruled that the First Amendment did not bar Cohen's contract and misrepresentation claims. The jury then found liability on both claims and awarded plaintiff $200,000 compensatory damages jointly and severally against the defendants. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages of $250,000 against each defendant. The appellate court affirmed as to the breach of contract claim but dismissed the misrepresentation claim.

Issue:

Is a newspaper's breach of its reporter's promise of anonymity to a news source legally enforceable?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The court held that newspapers' breach of reporter's promise of anonymity to news source was not legally enforceable, neither under a breach of contract claim or under the doctrine of promissory estoppel. Contract law was ill fit for a promise of news source confidentiality, and the use of a promissory estoppel theory violated newspapers' First Amendment rights.

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