Million Dollar Reward Case Refiled
A claim to $1 million for meeting a lawyer’s dare made on Dateline NBCis alive again. Former law student Dustin Kolodziej filed a new complaint in late June against high-profile Florida defense lawyer, James Cheney Mason.
Prosecutors said Mason’s client, a wealthy businessman on trial for murdering his business partner and others, manufactured an alibi putting him in a La Quinta hotel in Atlanta on the day of the Central Florida murders. On Dateline NBC, Mason explained his defense, that the state could not show that the trip they imagined the defendant took was possible within the time frame. A vital leg of the journey involved getting off a plane at Atlanta’s busy airport to the hotel five miles away, in less than 30 minutes, where the defendant was seen in security tape early and late in the day.
Mason said he’d pay $1 million if proven wrong. Kolodziej did just that, reenacting the full trip, capturing it on his camcorder, and making the final leg in less than 30 minutes. Kolodziej claims a valid contract, formed by Mason making an offer of a reward for an act and Kolodziej accepting it by performing the act. Mason calls the claim ridiculous and refuses to pay.
Kolodziej’s first lawsuit against Mason for breach of contract, filed in Texas last year, was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction over Mason, as Co-Op’s Dave Hoffman noted then. Also as Dave noted, the case raises a classic issue in contract law, about whether dares to be proven wrong like this are recognized as offers or mere bluffs and jests. Mason says not only was his bluster about the million a joke, the full text of what he said makes clear he was daring the prosecutors to prove the point, not the general public.
Though Dave’s post signals he’s betting strongly against finding a valid contract here, I think the case is a closer call. The issue in settings like this is whether the promissory assertion is to be understood reasonably as an offer that can be accepted by performing the act or is more a matter of jesting, provocation, rhetoric, and display.
Companies or people offer payments in exchange for someone doing something, disproving a trade claim or finding a lost pet. Sometimes called “prove me wrong” cases, the commercial illustration appears in a classic case from England in 1892, amid an influenza epidemic. Inventive geniuses concocted cures, including the Carbolic Smoke Ball. One offered a reward to anyone using the product and still catching the flu, showing its sincerity by depositing reward money in a bank. That counted as an offer that a woman using and catching the flu accepted, entitling her to the money.
A modern case coming out the other way refused to treat as an offer a Pepsi ad appearing to put up for sale a $30 million military jet in exchange for promotional product points or cash less than $700,000. The Mason case seems more like the old flu case than the modern Pepsi case, as this piece of journalism on the Mason case agrees.
Making Kolodziej’s case against Mason stronger are the following cases, more on point, and all finding offers that formed valid contracts when accepted:
A tax protestor appearing on a television show declared: “If anybody calls this show and cites any section of the code that says an individual is required to file a tax return, I’ll pay them $100,000.” 1
A gambling company executive testifying at a public gaming commission hearing about the integrity of his product, a punchboard, said: “I’ll put $100,000 to anyone to find a crooked board. If they find it, I’ll pay it.” 2
The head of the Jesse James museum asserted that the outlaw didn’t die in 1882 as legend has it but lived under an alias many years afterwards, at the site of the museum, saying he offered $10,000 “to anyone who could prove me wrong.”3
Mason is wrong that it’s ridiculous to see his statement as an offer. After all, he was on Dateline NBC, while defending a capital murder defendant, no laughing matter. But whether it is a valid offer is not free from doubt. Weaker yet is Mason’s other claim, that any dare or offer he made, was limited to the prosecution, not open to anyone. It would be odd to make such an offer to an adversary in a legal dispute. Mason is learning that it can be risky litigating cases on national television rather than in the courtroom.
1. Newman v. Schiff, 778 F.2d 460 (8th Cir.1985).
2.Barnes v. Treece, 549 P.2d 1152 (Wash. 1976).
3.James v. Turilli, 473 S.W.2d 757 (Mo. App.1971).