Harvey v. Dow

2008 ME 192, 962 A.2d 322



The doctrine of promissory estoppel applies to promises that are otherwise unenforceable, and is invoked to enforce such promises so as to avoid injustice. It is an accepted doctrine in Maine. A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee or a third person and which does induce such action or forbearance is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise. The remedy granted for breach may be limited as justice requires.


The parents had agreed to eventually transfer land to the daughter. The father later allowed the daughter to build a house on one of their lots. After the house was built with life insurance proceeds from the death of the daughter's husband, the parents refused to deed the lot to her. The daughter sued her parents to compel them to convey the lot to her, or for damages based on the value of a home she built on it, and asserting promissory estoppel and other claims. The trial court held the parents' promises were too indefinite to enforce even if the promises were the subject of detrimental reliance.


Did the daughter have a claim based on promissory estoppel?




The high court agreed that general promises to convey land as a gift were insufficient to support a promissory estoppel claim. However, the trial court erred in failing to consider the parents' actions, along with their generalized statements, in determining whether the daughter established promissory estoppel. Certain actions of the father could have been interpreted as a manifestation of his intent to confirm his general promise to convey land to the daughter and to direct it to the specific lot: he approved the site of her house, obtained a building permit for it, and then built a substantial part of it himself at that location. As building the house was an irretrievable change in position, the statute of frauds would not bar enforcement of the promise.

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