Law School Case Brief
Tom Growney Equip., Inc. v. Ansley - 1994-NMCA-159, 119 N.M. 110, 888 P.2d 992
Restitution is ordinarily not available when a service is not sought by the owner. That general rule is founded upon the owner's fundamental right of free choice: the exclusive right to determine whether his property shall be repaired and if so, by whom. That right of choice necessarily includes the right not to pay for services rendered without knowledge or consent. This principle permeates the equitable foundations of restitution. Underlying most of the cases, however, seems to be a strong double commitment to prevent unjust enrichment on the one hand and to protect the owner's right of free choice on the other. Where the owner has a right to choose for himself whether to receive a benefit, and where restitution would deprive him of this choice by requiring payment for a "benefit" the owner may not want, restitution is often denied. The right of self-determination through personal choices, that is, personal autonomy, is central to personal being and growth as well as to the concept of a free society.
Jim Ansley (Owner) sold a backhoe loader on credit in 1988. Owner retained a security interest but neglected to record it. In 1991 the Debtor took the backhoe to Tom Growney Equipment, Inc. (Repairer) for repairs. At the time, the Debtor had an open account with Repairer. The repairs were duly performed and Repairer released the backhoe to the Debtor in exchange for a promissory note. Repairer believed that the Debtor owned the backhoe free of any creditor's security interest and was unaware of the obligation to Owner. Similarly, Owner was unaware of the services provided by Repairer, or that Repairer was owed any money by the Debtor. When the Debtor defaulted on its obligations, the Owner repossessed the machinery, and the Repairer sued both the Debtor and the Owner. After the district court entered summary judgment for plaintiff Repairer under a claim for damages in quantum meruit, defendant Owner appealed.
Was the Owner liable to pay the Repairer for the repairs contracted by the Debtor?
The court reversed the summary judgment for the repairer and remanded to enter judgment for Owner. The Repairer did not have an action to recover in restitution for the value of work done where the Owner did not authorize or otherwise encourage the repairs. Although there may have been some enrichment in terms of the value of those repairs to the Owner, the appellate court did not believe that the Owner was enriched unjustly. The result may seem harsh to the Repairer, which was left unpaid for its efforts. But, in the appellate court's view, a greater inequity would have arisen if the law compelled the Owner to pay for services he did not request, did not authorize, and possibly did not want.
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