A claim to $1 million for meeting a lawyer’s dare made on Dateline NBC is now dead. The case is over thanks to an opinion, by Judge Wilson for the 11th Circuit, that will be in the next editions of all Contracts casebooks: it provides a comprehensive, careful and contestable treatment of unilateral contracts.
Former law student Dustin Kolodziej filed the case in 2009 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 claimed a valid contract, formed by Mason making an offer of a reward for an act and Kolodziej accepting it by performing the act. Mason called the claim ridiculous.
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. The 11th Circuit, affirming a grant of summary judgment, sided with Mason. Stressing context, 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.
Dave Hoffman correctly predicted this outcome–nice job Dave (here and here)! I thought the case a closer call, as I explained here and in my book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter (Cambridge U Press 2012).
While I am persuaded by Dave and the 11th Circuit’s opinion, I remain convinced that Mason was wrong to call the claim ridiculous. The court takes the claim more seriously, to its credit, though I wish they had engaged more with the arguments put forth in my book (which, alas, the court does not cite).
Hat tip to Jim Gross, currently clerking for the 9th Circuit, who wrote to remind me that we discussed this case on his first day of Contracts class at GW back in 2011. Hat tip also to David George, the lawyer for Kolodziej, who also sent me a copy.