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Before any celebrity takes to Twitter and announces a big-ticket reward for solving the mystery of lost keys or for providing information leading to the arrest of a certain college football coach, they might wish to consider two recent lawsuits.
In one dispute, a man seeks to collect on a $1 million reward offered on YouTube by musician Ryan Leslie for finding his missing laptop. In another dispute, an anonymous person looks to collect on a $125,000 reward offered by Palm Springs Film Festival head Harold Matzner and publicist Michael Levine for information leading to the identification of fellow publicist Ronni Chasen‘s killer. The two recent cases show that it’s legally dangerous to hang reward offers out there if you don’t intend to pay.
The two lawsuits have some differences but one big similarity.
In the case against Leslie, the object in question was a laptop that had gone missing in Germany that was very important to the R&B/hip-hop star. According to his YouTube posting, Leslie said:
“Last night something very personal, something very special was taken. I am offering a reward of $20,000…that reward is really not even close to the value of everything that we lost….so if you have any information, if you’ve seen anything, if you hear anything, get at me.”
Leslie established an e-mail account to receive information and then upped the reward from $20,000 to $1 million. He even posted on his Twitter account the following: “I’m absolutely continuing my Euro tour plus raised the reward for my intellectual property to $1mm. Click to watch: http://on.fb.me/bCBnrM”
A man returned the laptop, and then tried to contact Leslie by e-mail, but never heard back.
Meanwhile, according to the complaint filed in the lawsuit against Matzner and Levine, in an effort to assist the police in investigating the murder of their friend Chasen, Matzner “offered a reward of $100,000 for information” about Chasen and “separately offered to start a reward fund that was to contain a minimum of $25,000 within a week.”
An individual heard news reports about the rewards and allegedly at great personal risk called in a tip to America’s Most Wanted identifying the killer’s name. The suspect committed suicide and the police launched an investigation. Afterwards, Matzner told the media that he was “prepared to pay the reward as soon as the Beverly Hills Police Department tells us that it is the correct thing to do.”
The complaint says that the police confirmed the tip as resulting in the solving of the case, but the tipster never got the money.
Two different cases, but in each, the plaintiffs are arguing breach of contract.
We imagine that when most law students take their contracts class, it’s pretty boring. That is, until the subject turns to the enforceability of unilateral contracts. For understandable reasons, disputes here tend to set off the imagination.
Witness the analysis offered by Nadia-Elysse Harris, who is studying law and journalism at New York Law School. She writes on the Leslie case that the standard for figuring out whether there’s an enforceable contract in these situations is whether a reasonable person would have assumed the offer for reward to be valid. She thinks the plaintiff has a great shot at winning if the case doesn’t settle. “Our laptop finder will likely walk away $1 million richer,” she writes.
Perhaps, but there’s another case that comes to mind.
In 2006, another law student by the name of Dustin Kolodziej was watching NBC’s Dateline and heard a lawyer, James Mason, defending one of his clients accused of three murders. Mason told the TV audience it was impossible for his client to have committed the crimes since it would have required his client to fly from Orlando to Atlanta, exit one of the busiest airports in the world, and arrive at a hotel five miles away in less than a half hour.
“I challenge anybody to show me, I’ll pay them a million dollars if they can do it,” said Mason on the show.
Kolodziej retraced the alleged murderer’s supposed route and made a video recording of his travel in less than 28 minutes. He couldn’t get Mason to pay up, and five years later, he’s still embroiled in pre-trial litigation in efforts to collect the claimed $1 million.
Arguing for the validity of a contract works in the classroom, but a unilateral offers + surprising acceptance really amounts to an implicit agreement by all parties to experience a massive legal headache.
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