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Until this week, the case of the $1 million Dateline challenge offered a cautionary tale about the risks of appearing on television and communicating an offer to viewers. But thanks to a Florida judge’s ruling on Wednesday, the case will forever be a warning about how video editing can cause trouble.
Our story begins in 2006 when Orlando-based attorney James Mason went on NBC’s Dateline to defend his client, Nelson Serrano, accused of killing four people. Mason claimed it was impossible for Serrano to have committed the murders, since it would have required his client to get off a flight in Atlanta’s very busy airport and arrive at La Quinta hotel five miles away in less than a half hour. Then, Mason seemingly made the following offer:
“I challenge anybody to show me — I’ll pay them a million dollars if they can do it.”
Dustin Kolodziej, then an enterprising law student at South Texas College of Law, decided to take up Mason’s challenge. In December, 2007, Kolodziej retraced Serrano’s alleged route and made a video recording of the travel. He made the trip in under 28 minutes.
Then, he looked to collect.
Mason wouldn’t pay, so Kolodziej sued.
Nearly eight years after that Dateline episode, the legal dispute has come to a conclusion.
First, a few quick words about contracts.
There are multiple forms. Some are in writing. Others are agreed upon orally. For a contract to be valid, there has to be an offer and acceptance. Some contracts are bilateral — meaning multiple parties make promises to each other. (I give you $500. You give me that television set.) Then, there’s the type of contract that was allegedly entered into by Mason and Kolodziej: A unilateral contract where one party makes an express promise for another party’s performance without any legal obligation to actually perform. (I will pay you $10 if you find my dog.)
Kolodziel thought that Mason had extended an offer for a unilateral contract, and that by proving the prosecution’s theory of the Serrano case as possible, Kolodziel would be accepting and performing the “challenge.”
Just one problem.
Dateline had edited Mason’s comments for television.
Here’s what the attorney really said before it was edited:
“I challenge anybody to show me, and guess what? Did they bring in any evidence to say that somebody made that route, did so? State’s burden of proof. If they can do it, I’ll challenge ‘em. I’ll pay them a million dollars if they can do it.”
This week, U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell gave her interpretation of the unedited statement.
“Read, seen and heard in context, the above-noted excerpt from Mason’s unedited interview can only lead a reasonable person to but one understanding, that the words ‘them’ and ‘they’ as used throughout the entire excerpt now refers to the state prosecution,” writes the judge.
The summary judgment opinion (read in full here) goes on to explain why Kolodziel’s breach-of-contract claim fails.
“Kolodziej heard one ‘challenge’ that was open to anybody, which therefore included him,” the judge writes. “However, the actual ‘challenge’ was not open to anybody, and that conclusively forecloses any opportunity Kolodziej has to now argue that the ‘challenge’ somehow constituted a valid offer and that he accepted that offer by his performance. Kolodziej cannot proceed with his claim for one million dollars by supposing, believing, imagining or hoping that an offer was made to him that simply was not.”
Give Kolodziej some Pepsi Points for trying.
For more on the fun topic of unilateral contracts, and a look at how one plaintiff actually prevailed in one of these cases, see “R&B Artist Ryan Leslie Loses a $1 Million Lawsuit Over a YouTube Offer.“
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